Monthly Archives: May 2015

Exporting your business? Import a language – in 3 months?

There is a really interesting book out just now. Called “Fluent In 3 Months”, it’s based on a blog by Benny Lewis, which has 500,000 readers every month. They follow his language-learning exploits and the digital/nomadic lifestyle that earned him the title of National Geographic Traveller of the Year in 2013.

Benny is interesting to us as a language company because he believes, “Language books are generally written by people with PhDs in linguistics or born into multilingual environments … I did poorly in school – barely passed German – and felt people would relate to that”.

His approach doesn’t necessarily endear him to every language expert. A review of his book on, admittedly by someone from a company which takes a more “input-based approach”, challenges Lewis but does acknowledge that there is a lot to what he says and writes.

It’s not my intention to get bogged down in the argument over the best way to learn a foreign language. Fluency is one thing, but real bi-lingualism is another matter entirely and no-one should entrust sensitive business translations or interpretation in a court of law to someone who is ‘fluent in three months’. What I want to concentrate upon is the value of this approach for many of our clients, specifically those whose business involves exporting and, as a result, takes them abroad regularly.

A friend of mine has recently learned Japanese (respect!), but even he, a good linguist, was impressed by Lewis’s methods. One of Lewis’s top tips is to associate foreign words with (obscure) mind pictures or something else easily remembered (a standard practice for memorising speeches). For example, he suggests the word ‘gare’ (French for station) reminds him of Garfield the comic-strip cat, so he pictures the feline running for a train. He also says that if someone speaks to you in their own language you shouldn’t worry about understanding the whole sentence but should just pick out he words or phrases you recognise.

He also dismisses concentrating too much on grammar in the early stages, but to speak as much as possible and study the grammar after you can communicate a little. He also says that you ought to “get as much frustrating study work out of the way as you can in your home country; especially phrases and vocabulary”. It’s when you are in another country and speaking to lots of people lots of the time that your language skills dramatically improve according to Lewis.

If you are in an exporting business and spend a lot of time in your customers’ countries then you are in the ideal environment for learning their language. Benny Lewis’s success has been principally down to speaking straight away rather than holding back for fear of getting it wrong, and due to the time he spent in the countries concerned rather than in front of a text-book ‘back home’. I’d encourage you to give it a go. Your customers will like you better for it, you’ll be more confident, and if you get a reputation as someone who really tries hard to speak the local language, while your competitors are still assuming that English, being the world’s main business language, is all they need (and losing clients on all sides) then you will be the ultimate winner!

David Orr, Director, Global Connects

Why it’s healthy to learn another language

I have recently read two articles from mainstream media at the opposite end of the political spectrum (i.e. The Guardian and The Telegraph), which both make the same point (clearly they can agree on some things!). It’s one that those of us who are working with languages daily are well aware of – namely that learning a new language has all sorts of additional benefits of which most people are unaware. Or, as the Guardian puts it, “Bilinguals get all the perks. Better job prospects, a cognitive boost, and even protection against dementia”. And, from the Telegraph, “The brains of bilingual people operate differently than single language speakers, and these differences offer several mental benefits”.

More specifically, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that learning and then regularly speaking a foreign language presents your brain with challenges it wouldn’t otherwise have, viz, recognising unfamiliar thoughts which require it to ‘negotiate’ the meaning of the words/phrases being uttered. This, in turn, helps your brain to solve other, non-language-related, problems. Put simply, it exercises your little grey cells and makes them more ‘flexible’. There are at least seven key attributes which learning and speaking a foreign language can give you. These are:

  • You become smarter
    You build multi-tasking skills
  • You stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • Your memory improves
  • You become more perceptive
  • Your decision-making skills improve
  • You improve your English

That said, it’s not as simple as boning up on the phrase book, popping over the Spain and asking the barman for “tres cervezas por favor”. These advantages listed above are really only for those who speak many languages on a regular basis. Don’t be dismayed though. Research also shows that people who start to learn a language in adult life (even if, initially, it’s just so they can order those “tres cervezas”) can go on to become fluent in their chosen language(s). More importantly, they can also gain the same mental benefits, which are probably not what they thought of when they took those first, faltering steps into the intricacies of a new language.

The Guardian article suggests that “people self-report that they feel like a different person when using their different languages and that expressing certain emotions carries different emotional resonance depending on the language they are using”. This was an interesting, additional benefit to learning a language. Apparently, bilingual people are more likely to make better, more rational, economic decisions in their second language because, unlike when thinking in their native language, they are not influenced to the same extent by subconscious bias which impacts on their perception of risks and benefits. In other words, not only does speaking one or more additional languages improve your mental health, they can also have a positive effect on the way you think! Now, where’s my French Primer?

James Miller, Interpreting Manager, Global Connect

Gaelic – money is the answer, and the problem

Gaelic in Nova Scotia is “under threat” according to some recent reports. The provincial government in ‘New Scotland’ is, like many others, in austerity mode.

Now for those of us, like Global Connects and all who subscribe to #welovelanguage – and naturally like all Gaelic speakers and language enthusiasts – this is not good news. Nova Scotia does have a (small) government department (the Office of Gaelic Affairs) dedicated to Gaelic, but staffing there has been cut by 40%, ironically after interest in the language had been renewed, probably as a result of the department’s activities! Currently there are more than 1,200 fluent Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia, with burgeoning interest in primary and secondary schools. Only seven years ago there were only 15 pupils learning the language; now it’s nearly 300.

This is a conundrum for language enthusiasts. Unsurprisingly, as reported in The Scotsman, the local Gaelic community in Canada is enraged, with a spokesman describing it as, “an attack on the Gaelic community. You cannot put a price on culture. We who speak Gaelic here do it out of choice: of pride for our heritage, but, more particularly, the joy we take in this beautiful language”. I agree.

The conundrum is that clearly the provincial government, like the Scottish Government, has invested in the language – and it seems to have worked. Gaelic was on the brink of extinction in Nova Scotia, but since the start of the 21st century the numbers speaking Gaelic in the province have almost tripled. Money is the answer. But it’s also the problem.

Whether we, as advocates of language, like it or not, governments make ‘tough choices’ (as they call them) on how to spend our money. They cynically take account of the number of votes in each subject (we can see this in our own, recent general election) and act accordingly (i.e. according to their party political interests). Money goes to the interest groups that command large number of votes. There are, literally, hundreds of interest groups, of which language accounts for only a very few. Unless you believe there is a bottomless pit of money (something which economic history shows to be untrue), someone, somewhere, has to decide how is it spent. When money is perceived to be scarce, it becomes a problem for those small, peripheral government departments, compared to the big, ‘important’ ones (welfare, pensions, etc.). Money is the problem.

However, what matters here is not just perception but also reality. The Scotsman has done a fine job of raising awareness (perception) of the issue of Gaelic, both in Scotland and Canada. The reality, I would argue, is that language is of far greater importance than is generally perceived. For example, without language skills (interpreters, translators), justice is often difficult to achieve when the protagonists can’t make their case understood in court. Languages, including Gaelic, have contributed richly to our history, and without history what is any country or (group of) people? We must stress all these realities!

This was best summed up in one of the comments under the Scotsman article: “If we lost knowledge of Gaelic in this country we would lose a rich culture and identity that punches far above it’s (sic) weight, in addition we would lose something as simple as the ability to understand the reason why many places are named as they are”. Amen to that.

But let me make one final, possibly controversial but important, point. Part of the problem is that this article in The Scotsman concentrates entirely on Gaelic.   Enthusiasts of one language sometimes, and understandably, argue for their language to the exclusion of others. To illustrate this, the quotation in the paragraph above is also true for Latin and there is arguably less clamour for its survival/promotion than there is for Gaelic.  Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian and many more are integrated into our society today. It is essential that supporters of language do not let government divide and rule: we must support all languages equally, thus (cynically?) increasing the number of votes language commands and, more importantly, making the case for the importance of all languages, ancient and modern, in our contemporary society.

David Orr, Director, Global Connects





Edinburgh – Ai Ding Bao (A castle named Ai Ding) – The way ahead for language translation?

Last week’s blog looked at an interesting VisitBritain initiative which asked Chinese people, via social media, to come up with names for 101 of the UK’s most popular visitor attractions. One of these was Edinburgh, and the name chosen was Ai Ding Bao, which translates as a castle named Ai Ding. This has more than passing interest for me, and for Global Connects, as we recently undertook a big project for Historic Scotland involving the translation of their Official Souvenir Guide for Edinburgh Castle into a number of languages, one of which was Simplified Chinese.

Simplified Chinese is the main written form of Chinese, read and written by Chinese people originating from mainland China. It is also often referred to as Mandarin but actually Mandarin is the name given to the spoken language only.

The guide is a comprehensive 80-page book which covers the history of Edinburgh Castle and explores its many buildings and features in some detail. As such, the guide contains many references to the sorts of tourist attractions that have been the focus of the VisitBritain campaign.

The approach discussed in the Guardian article (referred to last week) involves transcreation (the process of recreating precise brand content for a target language) rather than straight translation. This is certainly an interesting area and looks as though it could well become the future of translation for the tourism industry.
It’s certainly important to the economy. As reported in the Guardian, Sally Balcombe, the CEO of VisitBritain said: “Chinese visitors already stay longer in Britain than in our European competitor destinations and are high spenders.

Every 22 additional Chinese visitors we attract support an additional job in tourism. We want to ensure that we continue to compete effectively in this, the world’s biggest outbound market and ensure that we deliver growth and jobs across the nations and regions of Britain”.

Beneath these headline figures there are lots of other people, all beavering away in their own specialist areas to make this happen. From the cleaners and guides at Edinburgh Castle to the companies who print the marketing material, the staff at Historic Scotland and, of course, Global Connects’ band of professional translators, we all contribute to improving Sino-British relations by means of enhanced understanding of our different cultures and histories.

Emily Drummond, Translation Project Manager, Global Connects