• Rick White - Director of Client Services

Overcoming Language Barriers When Entering New Global Markets: A Language Intelligence Overview

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Language is a major issue when doing business across borders

Are you selling your products or services into language markets other than your native language (for the sake of this article, I’ll assume it’s English)? If you are, are you providing documentation, marketing, support, and other information related to your offerings in those markets’ native tongues? Do you have employees who are native speakers or fluent in these languages, in addition to English? Do you have native speaking representatives and distribution partners in-country? Are you able to do market research in the native language? Do you understand required regulatory elements like packaging information, safety warnings, legal disclaimers, etc?

These are all major language barriers to entering a new language market. And they multiply in complexity with each language you add. In this piece we’ll look at a basic set of language issues and solutions , including linking you to more detailed articles on each issue, both from our blog and outside sources. First, let’s look at an idea that has increasingly hampered international adoption of products and services from other countries: The myth of business English.

Business English, myth or reality?

There has been a persistent belief among businesses whose home language is English, that English occupies a place as the international standard language for doing business globally. While there may have been some past truth to this, based on colonialism on the British side and the belief of business dominance on the American side, that assumption is no longer accepted. To be blunt, we are not the only nations that get to exercise nationalism when doing business with other countries. Assuming this myth still applies can be seen as insulting and disrespectful by our business counterparts across the globe.

Our recommendation is to set policy that says ‘wherever possible we will respect other cultures and communicate with them in their preferred language’. This sets the assumption that language is a principal consideration when entering new markets. This policy will deliver longer term benefits as those markets grow.

We’ve looked at this issue in more detail in a recent blog post. The post specifically focuses on training issues but is equally relevant to global marketing.

Consider the example of India: 18 languages

Pie chart showing languages used in Indian print publications

Image Copyright Nimdzi 2019

Nimdzi, a language industry consulting company, looked at stats for print publications and periodicals in India from a language perspective. Their research reveals 18 languages in common enough use to be supported by print publications. Hindi and English lead, but failing to consider localizing your content into languages you may not be familiar with could potentially hurt your global strategy. Many of the Asian Pacific (APAC) countries have multiple languages and dialects. Considering a multi-language strategy for a region can help you build a larger footprint and a more loyal customer base. Given that most globalization approaches do not take more local differences into account, taking a multi-language approach could mean  a first mover advantage. Marketing is increasingly being personalized and language is a powerful tool for cementing those more personal connections.

In translation pricing, the per word rate for more obscure language pairs is higher due to the challenges in finding qualified translators. This can be a factor in considering a more granular language strategy. If turnaround time is an important consideration, the best approach is to start with more popular languages and then build out additional languages as part of a market expansion plan. The critical takeaway here is that you need to consider a much greater variety of languages as you expand your global markets.

Trust via respectful communication

One of the longer term benefits of using native languages when entering new global markets is its effect on how you are perceived in those markets. Imagine purchasing a product made in Vietnam, for example and discovering its instructions were only in Vietnamese! I’m guessing that if you were writing a review of that product on Amazon, that this would be a principal complaint, one that would definitely hurt sales (and the product company’s reputation). On the other hand, providing a quality translation into a language where they don’t always see information in their language, is likely to improve your reputation, and generate those good reviews.

Ikea has an interesting approach to internationalizing their documentation: They don’t use words, only image cartoons. See How Ikea Designs Its (In)famous Instruction Manuals.

As this article points out, Ikea goes beyond just making localized instructions. They design the product for living conditions in other countries, including making flatpacks that will fit in narrow doors or up stairs and including the tools required to assemble the product. Hard to argue with a company that successful at doing business around the planet.

They also offer video instructions. They have some words but are primarily visual. The few words they have could easily be translated with subtitles added. An example:

Localization: Demonstrating that you understand and respect their culture

When you are dealing with language transformation, you are not only dealing with translation, you are dealing with localization, the practice of ensuring that content is understandable and respectful to the target culture. Pure word for word translation (sort of) can be done with machine translation (MT), like Google Translate, which is great for understanding basic context, but limited for conveying complex concepts or dealing with colloquialisms that don’t make sense in the target culture. Localization is done by native speaking linguists who are subject matter experts in the type of content being translated.

There is also a process called in-country review, where a third linguist, or a native speaking employee located in the country, reviews the translated content for accuracy and clarity. This is critical when you don’t have in-house speakers of that language to review the translation. Here’s a brief but useful video on the ins and outs of localizing websites.

We’ve aggregated a series of articles on translating market research surveys for Brazil, France, Germany, China, and Japan, that looks at cultural contexts for each and where the use of language can either hurt your results or improve them. Anyone doing business in these huge markets can benefit from these insights.

Multilingual Employees

Have you ever surveyed your entire company to find out who has additional language skills, other than English? Be sure to ask what their native language is- native language may be defined as the language they spoke as a child or the language they speak at home. These multilingual employees can become assets when entering new language markets where they speak the language.

Whether you have multilingual employees or not, you are eventually going to have to hire globalization managers who speak the target language, preferably as native speakers, for their language market. This will be a cost of doing business for most companies entering global markets, a cost that is an investment in the company’s future. While you will likely depend on local partners to help you enter and distribute in a market, you will need a company liaison to interact with them. More on that below.

Working with in-country partners: Distribution and Customer Support issues, including time zone differences

Distribution and customer support in another country are major barriers to expanding into global markets. Issues like language and time zone differences increase the challenges involved. For a smaller business these can be deal breakers- do you have people available to deal with support issues in multiple languages and in the middle of night? Even for large companies, managing these issues requires a huge investment, which is why they partner with local distributors to both resell and support the product or service. However, to make that work you need the ability in interface with them and they need the support tools, documentation, packaging, and regulatory adjustments localized for their native language(s).

I use the plural for languages because having a Chinese distributor, for example, means that distributor is dealing with multiple native languages like Mandarin and Cantonese and various regional flavors of each.

Finding, vetting, and working with partners in other countries can be a mutually rewarding situation if well-planned, including working with them to determine their requirements for information coming from you. This is an important aspect of laying the groundwork for a successful international launch.

Marketing to non-native speakers in your own country

Doing multilingual business is not just a global issue- did you know that over 20% of US citizens speak a language other than English at home? Not just Spanish either- there are dozens of language markets within our country. In LA alone over 50% of the population speak other languages at home. Most major cities have a similar percentage.

There are major benefits, beyond increased sales, to developing native language marketing for these groups. Product loyalty is one that many do not consider. People appreciate the respect inherent in marketing in their language and that loyalty can be viral. If you have many employees who are not native English speakers (in the US for example), training and safety issues can be affected by not delivering training in native languages. In 2018 OSHA estimated that up to 25% of workplace accidents are language-related!

Manufacturing: translating and localizing Product Information sets and working with PIMs (Product Information Management Systems) and CCMSs

Are you using a Product Information Management system (PIM) or a Component Content Management System (CCMS) to organize your product information in one centralized database, a database that can feed information to eCommerce pages or publish to multiple media outlets? If you are, globalizing that content is going to be a lot easier (and cheaper).

These systems use the XML file format, or a variant of XML, that allows all kinds of metadata about the content to stay with the content as it moves through a translation and publishing workflow. That metadata tells other systems how to treat the content, including its relationship to other content, how it is displayed across various digital publishing options, and more. It also makes changing and translating things like pricing, versions, and options much easier because the XML files are not copied and pasted and sent around- they remained connected to the source database.

If you have a large number of products with complex information requirements, investing in these systems with ultimately save you a lot of money, and that is nowhere more apparent than in translation. This is because the technology we use to manage translation workflows is designed to connect with these systems via software connectors and APIs. They can be costly to implement but they will make your globalization efforts much easier.

For an example of how XML solves a number of translation management issues, read this article. It is specific to market research surveys but relevant to any translation project. Most proprietary content creation platforms support XML output.

Global publishing options

The advent of instant global communication and access to information made doing business outside of your base country much easier. The Internet, which officially turns thirty years old as I write this, was the starting point, but today it encompasses so much more than websites. Connectivity has opened up an array of digital publishing options, many of which are foundational to a lean globalization strategy. Let’s look at some key publishing outputs:

  1. Website. The central information hub providing access to everything about your business and its products and services. If you are doing limited business in a language or testing the waters, consider creating and translating an informational microsite.

  2. Mobile apps and web. Putting product information, including documentation, into a pocket or purse is a game-changer because your product becomes much more integrated into a user’s day to day experience. Make sure your product and company site(s) are built on responsive platforms that automatically reflow the site content for mobile access. This is critical and a best practice for sites in general.

  3. Internet of Things (IoT). On-device access to global information and data generated by those devices takes the wide web and makes it more granular- and more integrated into daily experience. IoT is more than smart thermostats. Imagine sensors spread across farm fields telling the farmer when more or less irrigation is required, saving both money and water. These are game-changing technologies that may require user interface and documentation translation.

  4. On-device documentation. Having a screen on a device gives you the opportunity to offer access in the field to product information, user manuals, repair and diagnosis tools, and more.

  5. Video and audio. Video and audio are extremely effective both for marketing and supporting products across languages. There is specialization required to translate and re-record audio tracks or to add translated subtitles to existing video content. This article examines how to choose between video localization options.

  6. eLearning and Training. Delivering information via educational courseware that is on-demand, is an increasingly effective way to market products and services. Maintaining the courseware format that the training was authored in is critical, as are localization of audio content in video.

The important takeaway here is that your customers, especially the more remote ones spread out across the globe, increasingly want and expect this level of information availability. The good news is that using an XML CCMS, as described above, makes managing publishing to multiple formats in multiple languages, easy and fast. And you can easily send updates for translation and push them out to devices and apps as required.

In-country visits and relocation: language and culture training for in-country staff

Do you anticipate sending key employees to your new language markets? Successful global companies prepare those employees with language and culture training to help them adapt and function in different societies. This is critical because of the ‘Ugly American’ meme that came from Americans working in other countries and assuming a superior, nationalistic attitude, which offended their own customers. Effective cultural training can go a long ways toward ensuring you are welcomed and embraced as a business.

Avoiding getting overwhelmed: paralysis through analysis

“plans are worthless but planning is everything”-Dwight D. Eisenhower

All of this can be overwhelming; however, it doesn’t have to be. One approach is to simplify the process with one product or service introduction as a test case. One good example of a product category that offers a relatively smooth path to a new market is information products like eLearning courses that can be delivered digitally. Choosing a good reseller partner can alleviate much of the workload, however you shouldn’t be overly reliant on them to localize your content.

There is much more to translation than knowing the language. Translations should be reviewed by native speaking subject matter experts who understand its intended purpose. They often require specialized formatting to accommodate languages that use different character sets, are read right to left, or expand or contract in length because of the nature of the language. There is a degree of language specialization required. Fortunately, this can be outsourced and virtually every globally successful company does so.

Partnering with a fully integrated Language Service Provider (LSP)

All of these examples and issues are well-known to a fully integrated language service provider. We deal with them on a global basis and have proprietary technology solutions, access to hundreds of qualified linguists, and publishing expertise in virtually any form of business content. In our case, we also offer language learning and cultural training in addition to our core translation and localization services. Getting started can be as easy as making a call and picking our brains. After thirty years in business and working with hundreds of languages, it’s likely that we have seen and helped businesses similar to your own succeed in entering global markets.