Multilingual Business

Everyone who knows me I’m sure is aware of my love of language learning – my irritating joy at seeing a Chinese character I recognise, my dogged determination to decipher German board game rules, my truly dreadful French claim-to-fame of basically being able to order a cheese and ham sandwich…

But I don’t just love it because it’s interesting, I love it because it’s also useful. Learning another language means connecting with a culture directly. I have in the last two years acquired many native Arabic-speaking friends, and while they are wonderfully open about their home cultures, we inevitably hit a barrier explaining certain specific cultural concepts – things that just can’t be translated, or that don’t ‘ring true’ when expressed in another language.

I also have the experience of being in a PGR office where English is the Lingua Franca*, with colleagues from Libya, Indonesia, China, Kurdistan and the United Kingdom. What unites us linguistically (other than us all studying linguistics…) is English fluency. And while I think a lingua franca is a wonderful thing which allows communication across cultures and borders, it is inevitably a homogenising force which diminishes the richness of meaning available when using multiple languages.

For my PhD on inter-cultural business communication (in lingua franca English) via email, I’ve read a lot about how businesses operating in multiple countries choose to communicate both within and between those different regional offices and with their customers in different localities. Many make the decision to use a lingua franca for internal communications in order to maintain a company standard, and an internal company culture which unites offices in disparate locations, but crucially, for talking to customers, many will localise their service, and their online presence for the community they are serving. This is crucial for building strong ties of trust with consumers. Localising is not the same as translating – as cultural differences as well as linguistic ones need to be incorporated into website text. Even something as simple as getting offers and promotions properly in tune with local holidays can make a difference. Offering a lunchtime deal during Ramadan for example, would be culturally insensitive, and unlikely to boost revenue (during Ramadan, practising Muslims can only eat after the sun has set and before it rises again). Another example, certain numbers in China are considered unlucky and lucky – eight is lucky because ‘ba’ (八), the word for eight, sounds like ‘fa’ (发) the word for fortune; while four is unlucky, ‘si’ () meaning ‘4’ sounds almost exactly like ‘si’ () meaning ‘death’. One should use this knowledge wisely!

Localisation shows a certain sensitivity to cultural context – it will increase trust in an organisation if customers see that the company is making an effort to work with and for them. People like to deal with those they can empathise with, those who seem to share their values and ethics; this begins with culture. Our superstitions, our religious beliefs, taboos, rituals and traditions are all built into us in childhood, and it is reassuring to deal with someone who understands those and the impact they have on how we live and how we do business.


* a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different.

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