English as the Lingua Franca: Is Knowing English Enough to Succeed in Business?

English is the lingua franca – i.e., the common language often spoken when people of mixed native languages gather.

This might make native English speakers consider avoiding learning another language and falling back on their English competency.

While communication may no longer be the most important part of learning another language (see last week’s post), there are many reasons you should.

Here are a few…

The Lingua Franca Shifts

The ancient powers of Babylonia, Persia, and Assyria all spoke Aramaic.

The Hellenistic empire spoke Greek.

The Romans? They spoke Latin and so did other cultures outside their own, in order to communicate in a common language with the empirical power.

The Spanish and French languages have also held their own as the lingua franca during their empirical reigns.

This is why in many former colonies, Portuguese, French, and English often remain as official languages.

French was even the primary language in Britain for three centuries, with the motto, “Dieu et mon droit” (“God and my right”), on the U.K.’s royal coat of arms still written in French.

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, half the world was learning Russian as a second language. The fall was a victory for the English language, as this shifted the paradigm.

English was only adopted as the unofficial universal language of business in the last century, which goes to show how this trend can – and, likely, will – naturally shift.

Considering countries like China are becoming important trading partners, making Mandarin a key language to learn, English may not continue to hold this position as universal language for long.

“English Light”

In his book, Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One, Edward Trimnell provides another reason for broadening your linguistic skills.

He notes that “global English” is usually “English light,” meaning that oftentimes non-native speakers are minimally fluent and have not mastered the nuances of the language.

In order to negotiate with and sell to those who speak “English light,” language skills of your own are required.

The transition of global companies to communicating in various languages is prevalent in the shift of English web content over the years.

While in the late nineties, 90 percent of online content was in English, this has dropped to 25.9 percent as of 2020.

According to Trimnell, this is partially due to the mantra, “Buy from the world in your language, sell to them in theirs…” which is why international company websites are now available in dozens of languages.

Considering what we discussed with the Daewoo CEO last week, selling in a foreign language in a foreign market is clearly important, not only in regards to communication but also in demonstrating respect. 

The bottom line: the times are a’changing, and the skill of language learning should not be underestimated.

3 Vital Reasons to Learn a Language

“Hola!”

“Bonjour!”

“Ni hao!”

“Zdravstvuyte!”

While there are many reasons to learn another language, the below BIG THREE are vital.

1) Understanding Each Other

Communication – a vehicle to understanding – is of course one of the main reasons to learn a language.

English is the official business language of many international companies. Most managers, even of foreign companies, speak fluent English.

In this regard, successful management may not be entirely dependent on learning another language if you look at it purely from a communication perspective.

However, if you’re meant to feel at home in a foreign culture, better understanding will only be had once you know the native language.

2) Learning the Culture

As we talked about in last week’s post, language and culture are intertwined. 

Learning the language will teach you how the culture‘s people think – including your colleagues. 

One personal example of this: 

My father wrote the dictionaries for the tribe of the Mossi, whose language spellings weren’t standardized in the ’70s.

In writing these dictionaries, he learned not only about the language, but about the values of the culture, due to the importance of certain words and phrases.

Greetings, for instance, were many and varied.

When meeting a group of people in a field, you’d extend a different greeting than that of a group congregating under a tree.

Not only does the location impact the greeting, the response is also standardized.

Asking after one’s health is important, as are formalized responses to these greetings.

Even the Mossi are aware about how difficult these greeting customs are to master.

They have a saying, “Saan puusem yaa a ziibo,” which means, “The greetings are a heavy burden for foreigners.”

My father became fluent in the Mossi language and began to understand conversations and idioms.

“When the crocodile is sick, then the buffalo can drink,” for instance, is an optimistic statement meaning there is always an upside in life.

When you learn the language, you learn the culture.

It’s as simple and complex as that.

3) Demonstrating Respect

As my father did with the Mossi, learning another culture’s language demonstrates your respect for the people.

When a Walmart CEO announced that English would be the official company language in Germany, his actions weren’t taken well.

In fact, this – at least in part – led to the conglomerate withdrawing from the German market and to a billion plus-dollar loss.

Instead, handle language as the British CEO of Korean automaker, Daewoo, did. 

When it became apparent that General Motors, the U.S. company that bought out the failing motor company, Daewoo, was viewed as an outsider in Korea, Daewoo’s British CEO, Nick Reilly, took this to heart.

What did Reilly, known for his policy of “putting people as No. 1,” do?

Unsurprisingly, he put people first by way of appearing on a Korean television commercial.

When the people saw Reilly himself speaking the language to show his – and, more importantly, the brand’s – respect and commitment to Korea, they were colored impressed.

The result: the commercial resonated with Koreans, and the Daewoo company – although reorganized and rebranded in many places – saw a dramatic recovery.

How Language is the Oral Expression of Culture

You might be familiar with the idioms, “It’s all Greek to me” and “Burning the midnight oil.”

But do you know the German idiom, “Tomaten auf den Augen haben,” which directly translates to, “You have tomatoes on your eyes,” meaning, “You are not seeing what everyone else can see.”

Probably not.

Linguists and anthropologists, on the other hand, have long known that a link exists between language learning and culture learning.

Dimitrios Thanasoulas in The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom quotes linguist Claire Kramsch as follows:

“Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is always in the background, right from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard-won communicative competence, challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them. (Kramsch, 1993: 1)”

To put it simply, learning language is inextricably linked with learning culture, because language = the oral expression of culture.

The pair are fed by one other.

Ming-Mu Kuo and Cheng-Chieh Lai lay this out in Linguistics across Cultures:The Impact of Culture on Second Language Learning:

“Language and culture appear on the surface to be two distinct fields, but they have an intertwined relationship and affect each other mutually…The development of a language frequently affects its associated culture, and cultural patterns of cognition and custom are often explicitly coded in language.”

Culturally, language expresses both our thoughts and how we think. 

Kuo and Lai continue:

“Language is also a social institution, both shaping and being shaped by society (Armour-Thomas & Gopaul-McNicol, 1998). This means that language is not an independent construct but social practice both creating and being created by the structures and forces of social institutions within which we live and function.”

What are some structures and social institutions in which language is expressive of culture?

Following are examples of this relationship between culture and linguistics in action.

Family Structures

In this blog, we’ve talked about how the family structures of different cultures are reflected through linguistic terms.

For instance, while in Western cultures, “uncle,” is used to describe both paternal and maternal brothers and, similarly, “cousin” describes those from both sides of the family, this differs in other cultures.

“Cousin” in Yanomani, for instance, is termed dependent on the relationship; “amiwa” for the daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, “aiwa” for the son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, etc. 

With such specific familial language terms, it can be deduced that the bloodline matters more in such cultures.

Idioms Express Ideologies

Idioms across cultures can also tell you a lot about the ideology of said culture.

Individualist cultures, for instance, might say, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

Such cultures hold lift-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps values. Idioms emphasize individualism and oftentimes capitalism.

“Time is money.”

In contrast, idioms of collectivist cultures often emphasize the group.

One Chinese idiom translates to: “More people produce greater strength.”

This is just one example about how values and norms are reflected in common language, slang, and idiomatic expressions.

Language Learning Aids Cross-Cultural Integration

Knowing how much language informs us about culture itself, it’s clear how paramount language learning is to integration.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three things learning a language will help you demonstrate in your cross-cultural transition.

The Rice Field Analogy: Negotiation Tactics Across Cultures

Cultures have codes.

The past few weeks, we’ve discussed how to tap into these codes by using analogies constructively.

So can they be used to tap into negotiating with other cultures.

Innate Analogous Terms in Negotiation

Negotiation is a game.

In each culture, this game has different rules.

Strategy in negotiation requires understanding the game you’re playing.

Language used in negotiation is, of itself, analogous.

Negotiation is sometimes likened to going to war. Rules are minimal. Often, sports jargon is used, such as “fair play,” which is:

“in sport, the fact of playing according to the rules and not having an unfair advantage.”

Negotiations are something to be “won.”

These analogous terms used in negotiations naturally extend to cultures.

Framing a foreign culture’s negotiation tactics in the form of an analogy will help drive the correct strategy to “win.”

Cultural Analogies in Negotiation

In negotiation, Russians are “playing poker”; Germans are “playing chess.”

These are pretty straight forward analogies, easily understood by Westerners.

But what about the Chinese?

Chinese negotiations can be an enigma to foreigners.

You might feel mutual confidence, trust, and cooperation one day and, the very next, feel tricked into accepting something you hadn’t discussed.

The “pattern” is not like poker; it’s not like chess.

It’s variable and inconsistent.

To understand this seemingly random give-and-take, a friend provided me a succinct analogy: Chinese negotiations are like working in a rice field.

Rice is, without a doubt, an important part of Chinese culture.

It provides the people sustenance every single day from childhood to old age.

Cultivating this crop necessitates much more cooperation within a village than do crops in Europe or the U.S.

The rice field terraces in the countryside are flooded with a common irrigation system. The water irrigates one field to the next, and this requires that the entire village collectively working together.

Focusing on your land, alone, won’t work.

Instead, you must both hold your own and cooperate with others in equal parts.

This is what negotiating in China requires.

blog rice2

View it as working together on these rice terraces: you must hold your own while using the same irrigation system as that which feeds your business partner’s field. And your business partner is doing the same.

In order to be successful, you must support and cooperate with your business partner while playing defensively and cleverly, seeking your own advantage and ensuring that your partner doesn’t exploit his.

When negotiating with Chinese partners, you aren’t playing poker, neither are you playing chess.

You’re working in a rice field together, both supporting and competing.

Acceptance & Explaining Your Cultural Behavior & Beliefs

While adapting or adopting another culture’s behaviors or beliefs will help you integrate, you may instead choose to stop at acceptance through active tolerance.

When actively tolerating a foreign culture’s values or norms, you don’t necessarily have to take the next step.

However, remaining in acceptance means remaining a monkey in the foreign culture.

Although you don’t condemn their beliefs, you retain yours, which means you are different. And your odd behavior will be noted by locals.

Some might even view your conflicting behavior and values as offensive. Then again, you are entering their culture, so you cannot expect them to adapt to you.

But choosing not to adapt comes with a caveat: you must explain yourself.

Otherwise, a monkey moment might derail your success across cultures.

Monkey Moments in Language

A “monkey moment” is an encounter of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

When you choose to continue in your own cultural behavior while practicing active tolerance, explaining yourself to your cross-cultural counterparts is key to diplomacy and respect.

Don’t ignore the disconnect; explain why your behaviors or perspective differs from theirs. Building bridges of cross-cultural understanding allows you to be a monkey without all the negative connotations that come with it.

One specific example involves language: the formality of “you” in some cultural environments.

Consider the Swiss and the German, for example.

Germans are more formal than their Swiss neighbors, which means they use the formal, “sie,” for a longer period of time in workplace settings than the Swiss. Swiss move on to the informal, “du,” much sooner, even with their higher-ups.

For those who come from cultures without this distinction, using “sie” is like using someone’s last name, while using “du” is like being on a first-name basis.

When a German financial manager moved to Switzerland, he insisted on using the formal, “sie.” In doing so, he formed a cultural barrier between him and his team.

The more formal language made him appear less approachable and even arrogant.

Cut to a couple years later: the German manager wanted to enroll his executive team in a Swiss bike race as a team-building exercise.

Though the team excelled in the race, they weren’t remembered for their success: they were remembered for their use of the formal, “sie,” amongst themselves. Some viewed the strange usage as similar to a team captain insisting on being called “Mr. Johnston” by his teammates.

Not only did this tarnish the CEO’s rep; it tarnished the company’s image.

The Explanation

When the CEO finally understood his monkey moment after four years of working with his senior executive team, instead of simply switching to “du” unexpectedly, he explained his behavior to them and his rationale.

Describing how he’d grown up in a traditional German family, he explained that informal language always sounded inappropriate to him in a professional setting. He also expressed that it wasn’t that he wanted to be formal; rather, he wanted to communicate respect to his colleagues. However, being that Swiss culture didn’t view the informal “you” as disrespectful or inappropriate in a work environment, he proposed that from that point on, they would switch over.

Although in this situation, he chose to adapt to the culture’s approach to language, he would have avoided misunderstanding straight off had he explained himself from the beginning.

Still, in the end, his explanation made him a stronger leader and managed to bring his team together.

Sociolinguistics: How Do Languages Change Across Cultures?

Cross-cultural barriers.

That’s what you’re facing when ethnocentricity enters into international communication.

You’ll run into every communication barrier imaginable, some variables of which include:

  • Language, itself
  • Nonverbal communication norms
  • Authority ranks
  • Technological environment
  • Social environment
  • Natural environment

Understanding the cultures with which you are working and studying up on these variables will help you combat your own innate ethnocentricity, allowing cross-cultural communication to go infinitely more smoothly.

Let’s take a look at how these misunderstandings arise.

Linguistic Misunderstandings

It goes without saying that language is paramount to communication.

But when you work cross-culturally, you may not speak the same language, which means you and your counterpart will be relying on translators to assist communication.

Hiring a good translator can make or break communication, especially considering, even without a language barrier per se, linguistic understandings can still occur.

Take American versus British English, for instance.

Both cultures speak English, with minor differences in vocabulary, so you might assume communication would be cut and dry. But the culturally-grounded differences in vocabulary, phrasings, and accents have the potential to throw a wrench in communication.

Sociolinguistics

Enter, sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics creates rifts in cross-cultural communications via the social patterning that sometimes distinguishes class, inflates stereotypes, or highlights other national prejudices.

In fact, the differences between American and British English actually stem from class distinction, itself.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British exported the English language to America.

Those who settled in America pronounced the ‘r’ in words, something known as “rhotic speech.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, to distinguish themselves from the commoners, the upper classes began softening their ‘r’s. But the distinction didn’t last long as the masses naturally followed, thus creating a profound difference in pronunciation between British and American English.

The change in spelling and vocabulary was more intentional.

Without standardized spelling, dictionaries were necessary to preserve the pronunciation of words.

Those in the UK were created by scholars in London, while those in the US were compiled by lexicographer, Noah Webster.

According to some, in order to establish cultural independence from the motherland, Webster changed the way American words were spelled (no ‘u’ in colour, for instance), thus creating further differences in the English language across the two cultures.

Minor Details are of Major Importance

Minor details are crucial when it comes to business negotiations, therefore the fine print might be blurred by minor differences in language.

The more minor the detail, the more difficult it is to correct.

For instance, you can spot a major translation error from a mile away. Although correcting such errors may consume a lot of time, look unprofessional, and put stress on negotiations, at least they’re easy to catch.

However, accents, dialects, and cultural language choices can strain international negotiations between two cultures who are, more or less, linguistically on the same page.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

How Languages Signify the Importance of Family to Culture

When you want to know the importance of large families to a culture, take a look at the language.

As we discussed last week about two-generational and multi-generational families, the definition of what constitutes a family differs across cultures.

This week, we’ll talk about how language reflects this.

The Bloodline

Bloodlines are not of much importance to Western culture.

However, they are to others.

The Yanomami – an indigenous people who live in the Amazon rainforest – have four different words for cousin, all dependent on the specific relationship.

  • Amiwa – daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle
  • Eiwa – son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle
  • Suwabiya – daughter of a maternal uncle or a paternal aunt
  • Soriwa – son of a maternal uncle or a paternal aunt

Each cousin has a distinctive name, because the bloodline is so important to the Yanomami.

Turkey, as well, has familial vocabulary that distinguishes between bloodlines.

Your father’s brother and sister would be called “amca” and “hala,” respectively, while your mother’s brother and sister would be called “dayı” and “teyze.” Both mean “aunt” and “uncle,” but the terms are distinct to differentiate between bloodlines.

Moreover, the Turkish language also designates between younger and older siblings, in this way signifying the respect shown to elders in their culture.

Younger siblings call their elder siblings not by their names, but by either “abla” or “abi,” for an elder sister or brother, respectively. You can even address elder people in informal settings as such.

The Bloodline Loses Importance

The funny thing is Old English once differentiated specific relatives in a similar fashion; the language for such familial relations has simply gone by the wayside, since such distinctions are no longer important to many English-speaking cultures.

For instance, in Old English, a father’s brother was called fœdra, while a mother’s brother was called eam, a word that survived the 19th century through other dialects in the word “eme,” which generally means “friend” or “uncle.”

So, while someone from an English-speaking culture might find all of this specificity about the bloodline to be overkill, know that in generations past, your own culture did the same. As cultures evolve, and values change, so do norms.

This is one of them.

Love, Honor, and Smell: How Scent is Viewed in Other Cultures

When you think of the five senses, how would you rank them, superior to inferior?

You might instinctively say that sight is the superior sense. Next, you’d probably go with hearing or touch, followed by taste or smell.

This ranking makes objective sense to you somehow, but it’s likely that social and cultural prejudice of certain senses comes into play.

Language & the Lower Order

Last week we talked about how scientists once perceived smell as of a “lower order” than all other senses. This was because, at the time, rationality was in vogue, and scent was linked with emotion.

This scientific attitude toward our senses led to less research into scent. Even our language followed suit.

Think about it.

  • When someone is impressive, we might call them a visionary.
  • When someone is athletic, we might call them dexterous.
  • When someone is a curator, we might say they have good taste.
  • When someone is musically talented, you might say they have a good ear.

But you never compliment someone’s nose or smelling abilities, and the terms for nose in our vocabulary are often derogatory (schnoz, snout, snooty, snotty, etc.).

There is no positive equivalency for the sense of smell as there are for our other four senses.

Cross-Cultural Views on Scent

The thing is, other world cultures do appreciate the power of scent. Some even hold it in the highest regard, above all others.

One example is the Onge of the Andaman Islands. This tribe defines everything primarily by smell.

For instance, seasons are named after a particular scent, largely depending on what types of flowers or fruits blossom. Their calendar is literally run by the nose.

They also personally identify according to scent. If talking about oneself, one touches the tip of his nose, which means “me” or “my odor.”

The scent-centered culture appears expresses their focus on the nose in their language.

Consider the Onge greeting:

“Konyune onorange-tanka?”

This is the English equivalent of “How are you?” But it literally means, “How is your nose?”

Greeting & Scent

The Onge are not the only ones to hold scent in such esteem.

In Algeria, the nose – called “nif” – is synonymous with honor.

In India, greeting someone by smelling them on the head is equivalent to a hug or a kiss in the West.

Moreover, one ancient text in India reads:

“I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love.”

So, it appears that, in some cultures, the link between scent and emotion makes the sense of smell even more powerful than all others.

Next week, we’ll continue this talk about culture and scent preferences.

Visual Framework: How Culture Fashions Our Worldview

Do you see the world around you the way a Spanish person sees it? A Russian? A Korean?

Do you see it the way a Koyukon sees it?

Last week, we talked about optical illusions and how different cultures view three-dimensional objects on paper.

This week, we’ll continue our discussion about how our visual world fits into the framework presented by our culture.

Reality + Interpretation = Visual Framework

Our visual framework is defined by two equal parts:

  • Reality
  • Our Interpretation of Reality

And our interpretation of reality is largely defined by our culture…which means that visual frameworks vary as greatly as cultures do.

As we saw with the 10 Cultural Universals, everything from transportation to our homes, the geographical landscape of our region to our art, illustrates just how starkly our cultures differ.

These differences also show how each culture interprets the world around them, and how their worldview is fashioned by their experiences, values, and norms.

Our visual framework and what we place importance on, culturally, is often exhibited through language

One example comes in the simplest form: snow.

Western Snowflakes

How do Westerners view snow?

Many view it in one form: just, you know, that white powdery stuff…snow.

Westerners who are avid skiers might describe different variations of snow.

Hard.

Fresh.

Packed.

Powder.

But beyond a handful of adjectives, Westerners view snow pretty narrowly.

The Koyukon, on the other hand…

Koyukon Snowflakes

This indigenous group from northern Alaska lives along the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers.

Being that they literally live in snow for a good part of the year, their visual framework of the crystals is much more complex. We’re talking sixteen variations-complex.

Here are the Koyukon language‘s sixteen terms for snow, for which each has a distinct separate word (similarly to the Russians regarding dark and light blue):

  • snow
  • deep snow
  • blowing snow
  • falling snow
  • hard drifted snow
  • heavy drifting snow
  • earliest crusted snow in spring
  • snow on the ground
  • granular snow beneath the surface
  • snow thawed previously and then frozen
  • snow caught on tree branches
  • thinly crusted snow
  • snow cornice on a mountain
  • snow drifted over a steep bank, making it steeper
  • fluffy or powder snow
  • slushy snow on the ground

Just Imagine…

Now, just imagine it: you’re Koyukon. You look around your winter wonderland, and you see all these distinct variations of frozen water.

Put yourself in their moccasins and view the snowcapped world with this visual framework.

Wouldn’t the differentiation make snow in all its unique forms so much more important to you than the simple view taken by Westerners?

Seeing the world in another’s visual framework helps in understanding and empathizing with another’s culture.

Next week, we’ll talk about how ignoring this framework can result in some pretty major cross-cultural misinterpretations.