Multi-lingual and international communications – a necessary combination?

Going about with public transports doesn’t only make you feel like a letter, it also provides you with ample of time to read. Current reading is “Through the language glass” by Guy Deutscher. It’s a wonderful book, and I am fascinated by it for several reasons. One reason is that I, who never liked grammar, finds a book about linguistics fascinating and entertaining. Second, since the book is about language and culture it provides for interesting musing for when the bumps in the road prevents you from reading. Well, at least I find it interesting. Then again, I am the one doing the musing.

That language and culture goes together is an old fact. And don’t I know it. The errors I (can) do when I don’t speak my mother tongue, don’t get me started.

Anyway, since culture and language goes together I wonder how it affects our jobs as international communicators. Is multilingualism a prerequisite for international communications? Is it all possible to “get” an audience if you don’t speak their language, or even better speak their language AND have lived in their country? What more, as an international communicator can there be a possibility of credibility issues if you only speak your mother tongue, and sometimes don’t even have a passport, thus having never left your home country even on short travels?

Of course there are those incredible sensitive human beings that “get” whomever they are communicating with, or to, anyway. But for us mere mortals? Is being multi-lingual maybe a prerequisite for efficient international communications? No, I am not saying you need to visit (or live in) every country, nor that you need to speak every language within your remit. (But it sure would be fun.) I am more asking about that cultural sensitivity you can get from learning a foreign language. Personally, I believe you learn a language for two major reasons, curiosity and necessity. For me it has been a combination of both, with a leaning towards necessity. Being Swedish I am born to a language spoken by 8 million people in a country in the periphery of Europe. I want to travel, I learn another language. Simple.

Admittedly, my experience from living abroad is limited to Northern European countries (although if given the chance to live and work outside Europe I’d take it), but I do believe it provides me with insights that someone whom never left e.g. Sweden might not have.

Very often my own cultural sensitivity provides me with the insights that I have none, neither sensitivity nor insights. Which, I guess is good enough as it at least prevents me from hurting or even alienating someone.

So, does being multi-lingual make us better international communicators?


2 responses to “Multi-lingual and international communications – a necessary combination?

  1. My short answer is, no – I don’t think so, for professional communicators that is. Before going into my reasoning, let me share a bit of my background. I’m born as a Swedish speaking Finn, meaning that all my schools were in Swedish, and Finnish is my first foreign language. After that I learned English, which I have used in business for 25 years, out of which 15 years in communications. On top of that I’m pretty fluent in German. I’m well familiar with the cultures and their differences in Germany, Austria and Swizzerland. I have also spend a bit of time in China.

    To get to know people really well, you should speak their language or you need to have a language in common that both master. And for sure, you connect to people much better if you speak their language and you are less likely to run into problems with them if you speak their language.

    To communicate, however, you need a very strong language. You can learn about cultural matters with basic language skills, or none, like me in China. On a daily base I envy colleagues with native English, who easily come up with the short, to the point expressions, rather than just a correct way of describing something. I may bring added value from saying things straight, as Finns typically use few words and no fluff, but if I could change my mother tongue, it would be Queen’s English. All the rest you can learn, in English. That said, I want to point out that I am speaking as a communications professional. If you with ‘communicator’ refer to anyone who is internationally active, then I am in BIG favor of multi-lingualism!



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