Language and Business

For some reason I love hearing about language blunders. For example…

For those learning a foreign language these blunders are common and, with the right attitude, can add flavor to the language learning process. In the business world, these blunders are even more poignant because international businesses “should know better,” right? One which I particularly enjoy is the case of General Motors trying to sell the Chevy Nova in Puerto Rico. In Spanish, “no va” means “it doesn’t go,” which becomes a big problem when trying to sell a car. The Sunbeam Corporation provides another instance of a language blunder, which occurred when trying to sell the “Mist-Stick” in Germany. The product was a mist-producing hair curling iron; the problem was in the word mist, which apparently means “excrement” in German.  Needless to say, neither product sold very well, and in the case of General Motors the name was actually changed from Nova to Caribe to cross the language hurdle.

In spite of abundance of language blunders, however, language provides a necessary component of international trade. Without the ability to communicate, products and services will not cross borders. Furthermore, cultural, religious, political, economic, and social differences cannot be adequately addressed without first tackling the language barrier. When that barrier is breached, however, new worlds of opportunity arise to expand the borders of business. In this context, to learn a language is to lead the pack.

I’ve had the opportunity on a number of occasions to provide informal Spanish translation services for executives and upper management in my places of employment. I’ve been able to facilitate sales, reduce product costs, and improve productivity as a direct result of my Spanish language ability. As the only bilingual Spanish speaker available I became an instant and long-lasting resource to my organization. Our business prospered as a result and my value to the company increased.

Perhaps more importantly, language learning breeds understanding – understanding of cultural norms, social values, and non-verbal cues of communication that add depth to an interpersonal interaction with someone of a foreign country. Possessing this understanding in the business world is like calling in the S.W.A.T. team to counter potential miscommunications that could potentially damage business interactions.

If you’ve already decided to learn a new language the business setting can be a great place to practice – or maintain- your language skills. Business associates of a foreign country will see your efforts as a “good will” approach to business interaction. Wise supervisors will see your efforts as good business practice because of the potential benefits to your organization. And you will become a better person for your efforts to interact with others in a way that adds comfort and a personal touch to their experience with you. Finally, language efforts tend to ease the tensions that may otherwise be present in a more regimental approach to corporate interactions.

Obviously it’s not possible to avoid all language blunders. In fact, while learning a language such blunders can provide invaluable learning experiences. It is possible, however, to minimize language blunders. To do so, requires two things: First, you need to establish a language framework while studying. This will help your memory recall while actually using the language, helping to ensure accurate usage of grammar and vocabulary. Second, you need to use the language often in settings where native speakers can provide corrective feedback. At first, such blunders may be frustrating. Over time they will become less common and the quality of your language abilities will improve dramatically. These two items comprise the foundation for the simple phrase, “Know what to use, then use what you know.” This is very much true in the business world and will help you add value to your business through improved communication.

In spite of the inevitable language blunders, learning a language will benefit your business interactions for years to come. From a cost-benefit approach, the cost of learning a language is far outweighed by the benefits associated with learning one. If you can endure the minimal and temporary embarrassment you will lay a foundation of linguistic skill that will serve you for decades to come.

Have a language blunder? How about an experience when you’ve seen bilingualism benefit the business world? Let me know in a comment below!

3 thoughts on “Language and Business

  1. Lee says:

    The respect gained by those from another country when they see you putting forth the effort to communicate in their language is indeed invaluable. When one goes a step further and puts forth the effort to go beyond the textbook and learn the language as it is spoken by the people ofto another country or region the results are even better. When you are talking to someone and they realize that they have been focusing more on WHAT you are saying than HOW you are saying it their level of respect for you increases greatly, they trust you more, and you are able to get more results. This happened to Ke repeatedly while working as a teller in a bank. On the flipside, while occasional blunders can be overlooked, regular blunders in a formal setting can he viewed as a sign of laziness. So while it is important to be willing to make mistakes for the sake of learning, it is just as important to learn from the mistakes and avoid repeating them.

    • Ken says:

      You’re absolutely right, Lee. As a non-native speaker approaches native skill, it often leaves a significant impression on the native speaker. I also appreciate your insight with respect to formal settings. Your comment that “it is just as important to learn from the mistakes and avoid repeating them” is the crux of my approach to language blunders. Without learning from the mistake the lesson is missed and no progression occurs, which breeds more frustration than motivation. Thank you for your added insight.

  2. Fasulye says:

    The German language blunder

    It’s indeed not advisable to sell a product under the name “Miststick” on the market in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. “Mist” means “excrement” in German, but “Miststück” is a swearword which has the meaning of “bastard” or “bitch”, so it’s very rude to call a person using such a word.


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