Watch your language

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by Mary Scianna

People working in English dominant countries like Canada and the US take language for granted.

After all, English is the business language used around the world. Want to do business with Brazil, China or Indonesia? It isn’t an issue, as most of the people you’re likely to deal with have a working knowledge of English.

What happens when potential business partners or customers don’t speak or read English? Do you simply hire a translator to work on your behalf? If so, can you find a translator to accurately interpret and negotiate technical information? If you don’t know the language, you’re relying on someone else to conduct your business dealings.

As global trade continues to expand, Canadian manufacturers will be increasingly doing business with people in countries that don’t speak English, and when that happens, you need to be prepared to handle the language barrier and ensure you can maintain the business.

To this point, I came across an online posting from a North American machinist searching for software to interpret German drawings generated in CAD that he needed to read to produce a product. I don’t know how long it might have taken him to find what he needed, but if you have a customer halfway around the world that wants a product machined, there’s no time in today’s competitive environment to search out interpretation software. In the time it may take to find software to interpret machine data, install and then use it, your customer may well have found another supplier who can more quickly produce his part.

If you don’t know the language of potential customers you hope to do business with, you risk being taken advantage of and negotiating a bad deal. They may speak English in front of you during negotiations, but sometimes, what potential customers or business partners may say in another language may be more important and if you don’t understand it, you may be exposing yourself to risk.

“Speaking the language confers a huge advantage for anyone who wants to do business in a non-English speaking country,” Leigh Hafrey, a senior lecturer in communications and ethics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted in a August 2011 Bloomberg story. “It gives you the flexibility, knowledge that you need, and personal connections that can make a difference in the speed and effectiveness of your negotiations.”

While the US will be our biggest trading partner for years to come, many of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, as well as others in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East will increasingly be doing business with us. They may be learning English to better communicate with us, but we would do ourselves a service by learning to speak the language of future customers and possible business partners. 

As Chicak Tsuda, manager in the training department at Nissan in Yokohama, Japan, notes in a May 16, 2013 online article at, “even though we always do business in English, we encourage our people to be conversational in the language of that country, so they can communicate with their staff.”

If your customers or potential business growth lies in China, it makes good business sense to learn Mandarin or Cantonese. You’re also likely to impress customers who will take it as a sign of respect that you’ve taken the time to learn their language. SMT

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