Saturday, August 28, 2010

Language Tricks

“Culture is a like dropping an Alka-seltzer into a glass – you don’t see it, but somehow it does something”

One of my favorite professors at university once said, "As many languages you know, so many times you are a man". By "man", she obviously meant "man" or "woman" as she was no sexist for sure, but the message is quite ponderous: your chances of success in the increasingly globalized society depend on your linguistic ability. It so happened that during my summer vacation I ended up travelling three countries in Europe in three days, which speak three different languages: Spain, Germany and France. That was a bit of a overloading for my poor brain, but overall it was an exciting experience, as I made it a challenge for myself to speak those languages with the locals and refuse to admit that I speak English. The French were the greatest surprise. Their level of English was surprising and slightly frightening, since just a couple of years ago I would be struggling to find anyone there who would produce anything but a string of intelligible mumbling clearly identifiable in the whole world as the French language. Maybe I was travelling in the wrong place (Cote d'Azur, after all, is a highly touristic destination and the service industry adapts quicker than all others to the demands of the global community), but hey - those French waiters and shop assistants spoke perfect English (and some of them even Russian) - something I would have not expected merely a couple of years ago. I was not sure how to take it, as the French are known for their puristic stance on the matter of linguistic identity. So have they given in? It has always been an exciting discussion for me whether a country should yield and submit to English as the language of communication or whether it should preserve its culture and identity by insisting on keeping its language and culture "clean" of external influence, but that is a subject for a separate post.

Linguistic competence has been given a justifiably high weighting in the business world. When you put together your CV, the languages section is obligatory. When you apply for specific jobs, you will be given language tests during your recruitment process. If you are an expatriate, your company will make sure that you learn the language(s) of the country you have been deployed to. Reasons for this importance are obvious - if you want to understand how the society operates, you need to learn the language. I do not want to bore you with the intricacies of the Sapir-Whorf  theory, but in a nutshell, a language defines your thinking and perception of the world. Go back to your working environment and think what sort of language is used at the office. How often do people say "thank you"? What about gender-sensitive words? How do you treat those who do not speak the dominant language? Having answered such questions, you will arrive at realization of what the corporate culture is.

Linguistic failures are frequent and the most spectacular ones are well known. Of the more comical was Ford’s introduction of the ‘Pinto’ in Brazil. After seeing sales fail, they soon realized that this was due to the fact that Brazilians did not want to be seen driving a car meaning ‘tiny male genitals’. Here you will find many more examples of the Marketing Translation mistakes: (actually some are HILARIOUS!).

So what are the greatest challenges? There are many... the two that immediately spring to mind are:
- there are 23 languages in the EU Parliament with equal status. How can that institution function effectively?
- emerging BRIC countries with very particular and difficult languages. How do we enter those markets?
Seeing the rising importance of such problems I start thinking... should I drop my MBA classes and go back to my Linguistics degree? :)

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