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Language, Culture, and Business

Essential to any business is communication. At the most basic level, communication between the business and the customer is needed. Most businesses, however, require a great deal more communication than that, having suppliers, employees, etc. While there are many mutually important aspects of running a business (management, finance and accounting, marketing…), communication is essential to them all. And we all know that communication takes place in several ways, verbal and non-verbal, explicit and implicit, and so on. When doing business in another culture, the implications of the different forms of communication become readily apparent. Spending time learning the local language has a number of benefits. First, probably most obvious, is being able to speak and comprehend the locals. Getting a translator is an option here, I suppose. But when learning a language, especially if it is over an extended period of time has a second benefit, and that is that you will begin to understand the culture in new ways. Some words and phrases will be a microcosm of the culture, giving you a unique insight into the way the local thought patterns flow. As you learn the language, you will feel more comfortable with the locals, which will give you more exposure to the culture. Thirdly, just as important as learning the actual words of a new language is understanding the intended meaning, the connotation as opposed to the denotation. Communication involves the message as intended by the speaker or originator of the communication, and also the received meaning by the listener or the target. Being able to accurately receive the message with the intended meaning is very important, and this will come over time.

Having said all that, people can and do operate businesses in foreign cultures without learning the local language. Finding locals who speak your language, creating a business that doesn’t need local employees or local suppliers or customers, using translators and middlemen – these are just some of the ways to go without learning the language. According to my own experience and observations, however, those who know the local language do better. Those who know the local language better understand the people and the events around them. They are better able to relate to their employees and create real friendships. If the goals of your business have any social components to them, learning the local language becomes even more important. Knowing the local language will not only allow you to talk to others, it also shows the local people that you have taken the time to try to understand them and their country. (Have you ever heard an American say “if they are going to come to our country, they should at least learn English!”?) If you want to impact your employees, assuming you have local employees, knowing the language is very helpful. Even if they can speak your language, you will better understand them if you can understand their culture.

However, there are other reasons to learn the language. One is your personal enjoyment of the local culture. Living in a community where you can’t talk to your neighbors can get lonely. Another reason is, living in a country where you only associate with others of your nationality can send a message to your family and the locals who observe your lack of interaction with them. Learning the language, for me, allowed me to grow in understanding of the local people. It allowed time to adjust and understand the new culture. It also allowed me to make a change that allowed me access to a wider section of the society. Within English, my mother tongue, I was restricted to relationships with those locals who had a high level of English. After learning the local language, I can now interact with the society in general, and in a way, made the world much bigger for me. Relating to my business, I don’t have to look only for employees that can speak English, I can hire people based on their ability to do the job. If English were a requirement, I would be passing on some very qualified people.

If you have a long-term business plan, living long-term in the country will be much easier knowing the language. People who know the local language seem to be able to thrive, people who don’t often just try to survive.

By learning the local language, you will be able to avoid (more) miscommunications, which can only make your business stronger. You will relate to your employees in a different, better way. You will have insights into the culture that will enhance your ability to make decisions to help your business. You will be able to do some things on your own, without depending on someone else to translate and interpret the meaning of the message. If you spend a longer time in the language, you will better understand the intended meaning of the speaker, the connotations, and you will be able to better phrase your speaking so that the message your target hears is closer to your intended meaning.

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