Inside Babbel: Communicating Across Cultures
By startup standards, we’re getting pretty big. And as a language-learning company that straddles two continents, we’re also pretty international. That’s great, but it’s also a challenge: how do we go about talking to one another while navigating the various linguistic and cultural divides? Here’s how it works in practice:
Babbel’s growing fast. We now have over 400 people working on fourteen different languages. Between us, we represent 36 different nations, and — sorry to disappoint — we’re not even sure where to begin counting the number of languages we speak collectively.
“So what?” you might ask. “You’re a language-learning company — you’re meant to be diverse.” That’s true, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But there are plenty of little challenges involved in communicating across cultures. And those little challenges add up to a big consideration for a company of this size.
On an organizational level, it’s pretty straightforward. Everyone here speaks English to a high standard — when a new recruit from the USA wants to submit their expenses to a German native in our finance department, they have a go-to lingua franca. That’s enough to keep things running relatively smoothly around here, but it’s not the whole story: we each have slightly different backgrounds, and we each have our own ways of working and socializing with each other. To find out more, we asked a few friendly faces about their own experiences of multikulti communication around the Berlin office.
We live language learning
“Working in such a multicultural company makes it very easy to identify with the product,” explains Thea Bohn, Junior Content Marketing Manager. “We basically live out our own ideas on a daily basis — how many companies can say that about themselves?”
She’s right. We at Babbel are big proponents of taking a user perspective, and that requires no great leap of the imagination when you’re encountering weird and wonderful languages on a daily basis. In fact, it’s fair to say that most of us here use Babbel ourselves. There are very few people in the company who aren’t actively learning a new language or brushing up on an old one.
“My colleagues are all language addicts,” says Laure Cesari, our didactics team’s French Junior Project Manager. “It’s immensely interesting and impressive to see everyone learning new languages — in some cases their fifth or sixth. That’s an everyday reminder that it’s really all about motivation.”
Making it work
Of course, all these benefits come with their own set of challenges. Das Leben, as our German colleagues might say, ist kein Ponyhof — which loosely translates to “sometimes it’s a little bit tricky to work in such a multicultural company.”1
Our Head of Content Marketing Ed Maxwell-Wood knows the business benefits of an international team, but he’s also well aware of the potential pitfalls:
“The diverse team here was part of the reason that many of my team wanted to join, and they all entered with the motivation to make it work. Choosing the right people is key; all the editors have experience living in other countries and adapting to new ways of life, and they know how to be tolerant when acceptance doesn’t quite cut it. Sometimes we use time allocations and comedy buzzers in meetings to make sure everyone has the same opportunity to speak, but I prefer not to restrict people when possible.”
But it’s not all work: “beyond the obvious opportunities to practice your languages a bit, working in a multicultural team makes for some great restaurant recommendations,” he adds.
“There are always several layers of meaning,” says Thea. “And these vary greatly according to the cultural backgrounds of the speaker and listener. When we’re not fully aware of cultural codes we tend to rely on our own cultural backgrounds to interpret things, and that can lead to misunderstanding.
“I find it useful to occasionally try phrasing one message in several different tones — it really helps one to become more aware of the different shades of meaning that might be hidden in your wording.”
And when it comes to the nuances of wording, there’s perhaps nobody here more clued in than our Wording & Translations Team Lead, Erika Carmen Abalos — who happens to speak six different languages herself.
“Empathy, empathy, empathy,” she says of her personal strategy. “I use any chance I get to to remind people that even something that seems perfectly logical or legitimate to one person might not make a lot of sense to another. You have to put yourself in their shoes.
“If all else fails — make a joke. Cultural clichés are an endless source of fun.”
1 Das leben ist kein Ponyhof translates literally to “life is no pony farm”, which equates to the equally odd-if-you-think-about-it “life is not a bed of roses.” Learning a language is no walk in the park itself, of course, but we’re here to help: check out our course on German idioms.