How much money does business lose because it doesn’t get the language right?

Pretty much every business in New Zealand buys from, sells to or works with people for whom English is not their native language. Most of the time, we work on two assumptions: the first is that our partners will be prepared to deal with us in English; the second – more worrying, because it’s less obvious, and usually false – is that our partners have a level of English pretty much on a par with our own.

The problem identified

Here are some examples of how we can get it wrong:

1. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority has on its website information for international students thinking of studying in New Zealand. Here’s how it starts:

“Educational institutions in New Zealand offer a wide variety of courses and New Zealand welcomes international students at all of its institutions. Students intending to study in New Zealand can be assured of achieving qualifications that are at a standard comparable to qualifications achieved in leading educational institutions in other parts of the world.”

It’s perfectly good English, but it’s inappropriate English: given that a fair number of those students are coming here first of all to study English, maybe the

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writer could have chosen language which they might have had a sporting chance of understanding! How about:

“We really welcome international students to New Zealand. You can take many different courses at our schools, colleges and universities. And our qualifications are at

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the same high standard as those from the best schools, colleges and universities around the world.”

2. A leading operator of backpacker tours around New Zealand has chosen funny names for its tours. These include “Funky Chicken”, “the Full Monty” and “Whole Kit and Caboodle”. A good choice? If the target market is native speakers of English, probably: the names will have a certain resonance. But if they want to attract non-native speakers? I suspect that these names would mean nothing at all even to people with a degree in English – they might still sound quirky, but they don’t actually convey any real message or image beyond quirkiness. Is quirkiness enough?

3. What about the spoken language? I once heard a hotel porter in London giving some directions to a distinguished-looking guest with very limited English. He then added, trying to be helpful, “Jawamedewri’i’dahnfaya?” Which I think translates as, “Do you want me to write it down for you?” He could have made himself understood, and still spoken with his distinctive London accent, if he’d just made a few pauses between the words, and perhaps accompanied the words with a little “writing down” gesture.

I rather fear that an Auckland hotel porter might have come out with something similar!

Imagine these examples multiplied a thousand-fold every day across the English-speaking world…

Two ways of tackling the problem

We suggest that businesses consider two options for their staff.

  1. Encourage them to learn a foreign language!

We’re probably preaching to the converted here, but there’s no doubt that learning a foreign language gives you not only insights into the thought patterns of people from a different cultural background, but also greater appreciation of the language learning process. You have more empathy for non-native speakers of English when you realise just how much time and energy they must have expended in order to communicate with us.

2. Encourage them to work consciously on their use of English!

This is perhaps a newer idea, but it’s one which Euroasia is now actively promoting. We can help people writing websites, handling international correspondence, working in marketing and sales, delivering presentations etc. etc. to ensure that the language they use will be understood and appreciated by the widest possible audience.

Euroasia offers in-house stimulating and highly focused programmes for businesses keen to upgrade the skills of their staff. Please contact the Principal, Peter Chapple, for more information (peter@euroasia.co.nz). (Peter is currently putting the finishing touches to his book entitled “How to talk to foreigners”.)

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About The Author

Peter is Principal of Euroasia.

1 Comment

  1. Elaine says:

    Incredible points. Solid arguments. Keep up the amazing work.

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