Language: a challenge in becoming a global business

In recent discussions with a business prospect about their India entry, the issue of language came up. In particular, the prospect wanted to know if they will need to adapt their product in several Indian languages, and whether a British or an American accent will be preferable in their automated self-service system.

Brief and interesting questions indeed! So, what’s the answer? Well, nothing so brief.

My observations on personal linguistic preferences have evolved over the years of living amongst polyglot Europeans, largely monoglot British and American people, and English-aspiring urban Indians in 4 of India’s metros, as well as having grown up in India’s Hindi belt where ‘tatsam*-ism’ is alive and thriving. I speak a few Indian and European languages from the Indo-Germanic family so I have also been observing my own behaviour in picking a language to interact in a context.

A person’s linguistic preference in an interaction is shaped by several factors such as those below.

One’s own linguistic adeptness: Even with their mother tongue, different people have different abilities in comprehending, reading, writing and above all, thinking instinctively in the language. It is easier to use a foreign language, if one is not constantly translating but is able to think in that language. Many Indians I know, for instance, instinctively think in English and can carry on a fluid conversation on complex topics without resorting to their mother tongue.

Aspirations to linguistic fluency: This is an interesting latent factor requiring both empirical observation and good deduction from those observations.

For instance, my Bulgarian housekeeper speaks with me in English and is glad when I correct her or add to her vocabulary. At home, however, she tells me she is keen to preserve her son’s ability to speak Bulgarian by watching only Bulgarian TV, never mind how it will influence the son’s fluency in English! She argues he is learning English in his school anyway.

Inclusion/ exclusion: Language is a powerful tool to signal inclusion or exclusion. Living outside India, I am now quite conscious of how Indians from some regions switch to their own language, even amongst a diverse group, more quickly than Indians from some other regions.

Another example can be seen in ethnicity based sub-groups in larger groups e.g. a Dutch students’ group at Harvard Business School, to which a friend of mine belongs, posts pictures on FB and the following conversation is almost entirely in Dutch because it suits the context. In any case, anybody who is not Dutch at HBS does not belong in the group but the signalling is clear and reinforced with the help of a language.

Choice of languages available in a context: This external factor is more influential than we realise. For instance, years ago, when I lived in Bangalore, asking for water in restaurants serving South Indian fare was easier in Tamil rather than in Kannada, the default language of the state of Karnataka. The serving staff, I imagine, were largely Tamil-speaking.

Back in London, however, it won’t help me much if I insist on speaking, say, German in a restaurant in Britain. However with the growing number of Polish and other East European serving staff, it may well become a distinct advantage in the near future! More recently, when I visited Prague, it was simpler for me to get by in German than struggle with inadequate comprehension of English on offer in the City’s less ‘touristy’ establishments.

Interest in consuming versus creating content: This may seem like ‘internet-ese’ but it is not. In the real world, we could rephrase this as ‘interest in listening versus speaking’. My French is not fluent enough to comprehend slang well but that does not prevent me from having music from the French band Zebda on my iPod. Likewise I am keen on Hindi poetry and cannot always find good anthologies in print. But there are encyclopedic sites on the web where I can read this content.

As a blogger, however, I find the idea of typing in Hindi with its ‘shirorekha**‘ (lit. header line), the several ‘matra***‘ and conjuncts such as ‘ksh‘ quite cumbersome. My interest in creating content is defeated roundly by the disproportionate effort required by my mother tongue.

So far, this was all about the consumer. What are the choices for a business if it wishes to serve its consumers without forcing them away from their preferences to its own?

In its simplest form, the answer lies in two Cs – consumer and commitment.

Über alles, the business needs an intimate knowledge of one’s consumer. Given all the above – and some factors I may not have listed – such knowledge is not simple or easy, but it is a non-negotiable essential. There is no substitute for good consumer research, especially if the culture of a target market is unfamiliar to you. A consumer does not always want or benefit from a huge range of choices; which means getting it right in the very first moment of interaction is critical. Language can be used to include or exclude, and surely a business wants a consumer to feel welcome.

Further, the business needs the commitment to the market, which means the willingness and ability to invest in linguistic adaptation, as required. From my experience, the benefits are easy to demonstrate to and convince most businesses, but negotiating budgets can often be a bottleneck.

A business would be wise in not presuming to impose its own preferences on the consumer. When a business speaks its consumers’ language, it is privy to the chatter, the informal conversations about its business both in the real world and on the web. A willing business knows how to capitalise on these conversations to develop greater consumer satisfaction and make better profits.

Surely it is worth it, n’est-ce pas?

Explaining asterisked words:

* tatsam: Sanskrit, lit. same as that; Tatsam words are those that have been taken as-is from Sanskrit into Hindi.

** shiro rekha: Sanskrit, lit. header line; Hindi is written in the Devanagri script; the letters in a single word are joined together with a line on top like in this word here – हिंदी. Letters hanging from a clothesline. There, I said it.

*** matra: in Hindi, consonant sounds are made by combining a vowel with a consonant root. The vowel when used with a consonant is referred to as a ‘matra’. For instance, the consonant ‘k’ can be combined differently to make sounds ‘ko’ and ‘kau’ with vowels ‘o’ and ‘au’ respectively.

Related reading:

Manuscrypts’s excellent post on Minding Languages

My old post on linguistic apartheid and inclusion in democracy: Citizenship and apartheid

A broad, conceptual post on cross-disciplinary communication: Lost in Translation

10 thoughts on “Language: a challenge in becoming a global business

  1. So what’s the answer? Will their IVRS have to have a menu that offers, for example, “1 for Assamese, 2 for Bangla, 3 for English, 4 for Kannada” and so on….. ?What does one choose in the usual trade-off between offering higher degrees of customisation (with unsubstantiated incremental benefits) and the accompanying unwieldiness and increased cost?


    Quirky Indian


  2. Reading a great piece like this reminds me of just how much more I could manage if I spent some time picking up some useful phrases in some different languages. I was raised learning some French, moved to Massachusetts where I learned some Spanish and some German, and then I worked with some Chinese who taught me a few things in Mandarin. But I never stick with a language long enough. Thanks for an inspiring post that should show me why to stick with it.


  3. @Manuscrypts: Thanks for your comment. Mobile is just another platform; the basic human need (as defined in Marketing 101, “a state of physical deprivation”) does not change, or at least does not change much, with platforms. Nor would a business’s linguistic dilemmas, as to which language(s) to offer, go away with new platforms.

    The opportunity may lie in offering translations on the fly but I tried reading a Hindi translation of one of my blog posts one day and I must say I could barely pick myself off the floor. In other words – we have a long way to go in on-the-fly translations, which tend more to be transliterations than anything more useful.

    @QuirkyIndian: Thanks. The answer is not simple although one might be tempted to offer a Chinese menu (no pun intended) of languages and be done with it. The costs of irritated customers hanging up would be interesting to watch, especially in India with a couple dozen ‘official’ languages, no?

    In the post I mention that as the first step, the business needs to have an intimate understanding of its consumers’ preferences. I expects my client will proceed with some focused primary research. In early stages, it is hard to quantify the potential profits so the costs of adaptation can look prohibitive. It is a different story once a business succeeds in a market. The product offering may evolve as time goes on, and the business learns more from its consumers.

    Even beyond asking about the appropriate degree of customisation, there is the fundamental question whether any customisation/ adaptation is needed or if a business could standardise and still succeed. “Standardisation versus adaptation of marketing mix elements” is what my MBA thesis was about. Your comment made me think of it – fondly, I may add. Thanks!

    @Chris: Thanks for your kind words. You are so many businesses’ marketing advisor. I imagine a portfolio of languages will be right on the button in your repertoire.

    Languages do open the doors to understanding a new culture more deeply. After all, what better way to understand that certain French melancholy but to read Baudelaire (in French) and feel its darkness in its puissance? I think you will have more to say on this some time. Thanks again for stopping by.


  4. My native language is Russian but I prefer to write sms and emails in English. That makes them twice shorter. And, sometimes, much more clear.


  5. Great post. I wrote a paper last year with Bernice Klaassen on the Emerging Digital Frontier for a global research conference, and we talked about the rise of internetS. We believed that a new era was coming (whether PC or mobile) the differing Internet experiences will increasingly diverge (in spite of Google translate).


  6. @Sofya: Thanks for your comment. I understand your preference there. In German too, everything is twice as long if not by a greater multiple!

    @Kumeugirl: Thanks for your comment. I am curious about the paper. I shall leave you a comment on your blog if that is ok. Thanks.

    @Roop: Glad you did! Thanks for letting me know too.


  7. Shefaly,

    A really nice writeup. And it talks about something which I just love. Languages.

    I do believe that the sense of connect that you establish when you speak to somebody in their own language is qualitatively different. Therefore, it is my belief that it is well worth it to learn many languages.

    Most parents like their children to first learn their mother tongue before moving on to other languages. That could be the reason your Bulgarian housekeeper prefers her son to learn his language.


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