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Talking The Customer’s Language

Over half of Europeans (54 per cent) can hold a conversation in at least one additional language, 25 per cent speak at least two additional languages and 10% at least three. Irish business people are becoming more fluent, but we have to make this push more efficient, and become – like the Dutch, whose merchant culture has long made them multilingual – fluent in the languages of others.

At the heart of our complacency is a misconception that globalisation means that we can all get by speaking English, and that as native speakers, we’re alright. Another misconception is that we should speak our customers’ languages simply to be understood in case their English is not great. But really the reason the language will get you ahead is because you can research the market better, understand who your local and international competitors are (and position yourself accordingly) and be more aware of the cultural nuances in conducting business in that country.

The good news is that learning and practising languages has never been easier. The universities have intensive courses – for example, UCD’s Applied Language Centre. The specialist Sandford Language Institute in Milltown Park, Dublin, offers in-company courses, as well as courses in languages in demand, plus many courses in languages “subject to demand”. And there are familiar courses in individual languages from associations like Alliance Française, the GoetheInstitut, and Istituto Di Cultura.

The Berlin-based Abroadwith arranges immersion stays and courses where individuals or groups can learn and improve a language by staying with native speakers and going to classes in the country where the language is spoken; it has just launched a specialist business course option.

For the daily, constant, non-stop practice that everyone needs to become first at ease in speaking and understanding, and then gradually fluent, it is not always easy to get to centralised courses. But a host of online resources are available now that were undreamed-of even twenty years ago.

Comprehension: watch films in your target language – first with English subtitles, then with subtitles in the language. You can often buy old DVDs with “subtitles for the deaf” for as little as a few cents on the localised versions of Amazon. Some TV subscriptions, like Netflix, come with own-language subtitles which you can turn on through the settings. On YouTube, there are TED talks in many languages with closed-caption subtitles in the language of the speaker.

Grammar: Duolingo – a game-like app that drills you daily in your chosen language – is played by over 100 million people learning European languages, Hebrew, Russian, Vietnamese, etc. It brings you to a notional 62 per cent fluency level, which means you have a solid basic vocabulary and can use the main grammatical structures. It’s wildly addictive: many people start with one language and extend into learning several more.

Speaking: The Mixxer is a language exchange website that puts people in contact to swap languages. English is in high demand, luckily for us. You put up a brief ‘profile’ of yourself, with only as much information as you want to share, and offer to swap languages with native speakers of the language you are learning. When you are contacted, or you contact others, you talk to native speakers of your target language on Skype – typically half an hour in English and half an hour in their native language. (I talked to a French civil servant, who was due to be moved to the US; she was speaking to 10 people a week.)

Reading and local knowledge: international newspapers’ websites are updated at speed, and titles like Le Nouvel Observateur, Bild, Kommersant, and so on, are great vocabulary-builders. International TV is easy to watch online and will keep you au fait with the politics and business news of your target market.

Technical help: online dictionaries include the contextual, audio-enhanced, eight-language – contextual meaning that you can enter a phrase and usually find an example of the phrase used in context, with audio.

TuneIn Radio: streams radio and podcasts from all over the world, with ‘slow news’ programmes in many languages.

One-to-one classes without leaving the office: most of the above are free. If you want dedicated professional teachers, italki, again using Skype, is an aggregate site on which native-speaking language teachers offer their services and charge by the hour. The advantage of this is that you can often find a teacher with specialist vocabulary relating to your business. Babbel has drills and comprehension exercises – good teaching made digital.

Cultural insight: it is now very affordable to buy used books in many language on aggregation sites such as Alibris and AbeBooks: for basic vocabulary (and the slang that you may not wish to use but you need to understand), comic books, children’s books, thrillers, cookery books, and for your own business need technical manuals, political works, business books in the language of your market. (A tip: you will learn faster if you do not look up the words you do not know as you go along, but instead underline in pencil any unfamiliar word, and when you finish the book go back and read it again – this time you will know most words by context.)

For when you are travelling: podcasts like the Irish give you daily lessons – often free for the basic podcast, but with PDFs of the lessons with further help available for a small payment. It will make such a difference when you walk into your supplier’s or into that conference and greet people and speak in their own language – and even before you are fluent, it will break down barriers and warm the relationship. There is no better negotiating tool than a mother language.

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