Watch out for the language barrier

One might think that the confidence, even arrogance, of the British in the pervasive nature of our mother tongue would successfully see us through the maze of overseas expansion. In fact, in the minds of many of the UK’s exporters there are no barriers. However, because of Britain’s long-standing unwillingness to communicate in foreign languages we may be offending some clients and possibly ignoring others.

‘British exporters are impressed by, and will stare in wonder at, anyone who can speak a foreign language,’ laughs Robin Godfrey, manager of export marketing research at the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC). ‘The classic scenario is that everyone in the UK thinks that everyone else can speak English, so there’s no need to learn other languages.

‘Most people say, “I haven’t got enough time to learn another language and even if I did I could never learn enough to negotiate in it.” But it is courteous to use pleasantries, just as a minimum. People overseas tend to think it downright rude and arrogant of anyone who makes no effort to address the language issue, even just things like “hello”, “good morning” and “thank you”. Companies rarely realise they have any problems to overcome or any areas that need addressing. They think that most people speak English, so there’s nothing to worry about.’

Breaking down barriers

But, as you might expect, the Government is more than willing to provide a helping hand to boost overseas trade and, through its UK Trade & Investment arm, funds a scheme managed by the BCC called the Export Communications Review (ECR). This aims to help companies to communicate effectively anywhere in the world ‘without necessarily having to learn a new language’.

Exporting companies or those with plans in place to start exporting are eligible for the scheme if they are based in the UK, have been trading for a minimum of two years, employ fewer than 250 staff and export goods or services that are mainly of UK origin.

Godfrey explains: ‘What we do in the scheme is try and remove the language and cultural barriers between British and overseas companies. We undertake an audit of the organisation’s operations involving foreign companies. It’s only when you go over the whole process of how you operate that you can realise where opportunities lie. Before they see what changes they could implement, most companies have no idea they need to do anything. But there are actually many hundreds of different recommendations we can give.’

Competitive advantage

Based in Gloucestershire, Hilary Charman has been an ECR consultant for the BCC since 1996 and says the review is about generating more sales more quickly. ‘If companies are muddling away in English they’ll get there in the end, but if they use an interpreter or a student they will be able to get their sales in faster. Barriers come when you refuse to go to certain markets because of the language. France and Germany are just next door, yet people will go anywhere else all over the world instead just because they speak the same language.’

The results of an ECR often point towards hiring a foreign student. This can be part of the European Union’s Leonardo da Vinci programme, which subsidises exchange-student work placements. ‘Another option to consider,’ advises Charman, ‘is employing a professional translator to make sales calls.’

Perhaps even easier things you can do include re-writing and simplifying the English on your website, make it more international by removing or explaining jargon and making sure references to clients are explained. As Charman clarifies: ‘Saying “we sell to Tesco and Sainsbury’s” won’t mean a thing to people abroad. Also, make sure you say you’re in England as many websites say such things as “we’re based in Lower Wallop in Shropshire”, but virtually no one outside of England will know where Shropshire is, let alone Lower Wallop. Also, just adding “+44” to the start of your phone number can be helpful to overseas customers.’

Expert interpretation

Maidenhead-based company SDL International, which has 50 translation offices in 30 countries, can offer services translating more than 100 languages.

The most basic is a free online portal,, which receives 2.5 million visitors a week, making it the world’s most popular site of its kind. This just provides an automated, word-for-word translation, like a dictionary but, says Terry Lawlor, vice president for worldwide marketing, ‘it can only do so much and will always make some mistakes. It gives you the gist, though.

‘A more advanced system is our click2translate portal, which is suitable for small-quantity or ad hoc translations that need an accurate human translation, such as company brochures, HR contracts, legal documents or press releases. A whole range of companies use this service, and even American Express is a customer.’

See also: Language barriers and international trade

Acquisitions are a common reason why businesses will need translation services. Lawlor offers the example of one client of theirs, Stanley Tools, which had acquired two firms that sold into territories with which it had not previously penetrated. This meant Stanley had to translate a great deal of existing documentation, including the information on its packaging.

On a lighter note, it’s useful to remember examples of when ignorance of language differences has harmed other business’ health, as in the famous case of Vauxhall. Its Nova car was never going to go places in Spanish-speaking countries, where ‘no va’ translates as ‘does not go’. Another great example was a US company that tried to sell its ‘Mist’ perfume in Germany without realising that no devoted German husband was going to buy his beloved spouse a bottle of ‘Manure’.

Where to go for help

British Chamber of Commerce

UK Trade & Investment

Hilary Charman Export communications consultant 07817-506586

Oxford Professional English ECR consultancy as well as training and coaching in international communication skills for business: 01865-436791

SDL International or

Leave a comment