Courtesy of Catherine Jodar

“I can’t work like this anymore,” one of my clients, Lizbeth Toscano, corporate manager health and safety with Iamgold Corporation in Toronto, told me recently.

As a non-French-speaker working with the company’s operations in Quebec, she found that she was losing productivity because of the need for document translation between English and French, impacting her ability to respond quickly to questions from the field. Her francophone colleagues found it equally frustrating.

The productivity advantage from language skills

That’s what drove Toscano to study French as a way to improve her productivity – with a focus on mining vocabulary.

When I talk with mining company executives about how they can reach their strategic goals more easily through better language skills, productivity is one of the advantages I mention. Productivity improves if you have a language in common with the people you’re working with.

Health and safety benefits – clarity where it matters most

Toscano’s story illustrates another benefit of speaking your colleagues’ language – it helps you meet your company’s health and safety goals. Particularly in boots-on-the-ground situations, communication around safety issues must be quick and effective. There’s no room for error, and no time for a translator, when you’re discussing safety in areas like haul-truck operation.

Getting buy-in and cooperation from colleagues

Going a step further, if you speak to someone in their language, it shows them that you respect and value them. It shows you’re on the same team. Many of my clients have told me that this is one of the biggest benefits to language learning. Particularly for mining companies that operate mostly in English, you don’t want to be “someone from head office” who gives orders and expects to be obeyed.

Speaking in their preferred language helps with that. This works even if you make mistakes. It’s quite rare for native English speakers to take the effort to learn another language, so you stand out just for trying. You’re seen as someone who respects others, and this can help you  build buy-in for your ideas.

Related: Vale’s Katy Scharf offers advice to help businesses alleviate pandemic stresses for their employees

Maintaining your company’s social licence to operate

Gaining buy-in also matters in the world beyond your mine’s gates. Earning and keeping your company’s social licence to operate is vital in today’s world. This can involve training and hiring local employees and building the capacity of the local economy to become suppliers to your company.

In such situations, there is a strong possibility that the people you are working with speak languages other than English. This might be the language of a former colonial power – such as Spanish, Portuguese or French – but it might also be a national or regional language. Speaking even some of their language has a surprising ability to redress inequalities of money and power. As a result, community leaders, NGOs and other stakeholders are more likely to trust what you say, and work with you rather than against you.

Learning a language is easier than ever before

Many mid-career mining professionals tell me they are uncertain of their abilities to learn a language. My experience is that this is due not so much to inability, as to not investing the time required.

Learning another language is so much easier with video conferencing technologies like Zoom, which allow you to take lessons at any time. Listening to podcasts and using language apps such as Duolingo or Memrise can support your learning between lessons.

Another benefit to current communications technologies is that it’s easier than ever to learn more geographically focused languages, such as Hindi, Urdu or Kiswahili. All you need is someone to teach you and an electronic connection.

In summary, learning another language can provide many benefits. Some of these, such as corporate social responsibility and health and safety, are among the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Meeting the SDGs can help mining companies attract investors and other financial backers, and be seen as a good place to build a career.

Nelson Mandela is often quoted as having said: “If you talk to someone in a language they understand, that goes to their head. If you talk to them in their language, that goes to their heart.” 

Catherine Jodar is founder and director of Language Advantage Inc. and a member of Artemis Project, a collective of female entrepreneurs meeting the needs of the mining sector. To find out more about improving your language skills, see