International Business: 'English well talking' and other ironic business claims

Published: Friday, Nov. 26 2010 8:57 a.m. MST

Few things are more ironic than signs that use poor grammar and spelling to proudly declare fluency in another language. For example, some U.S. business signs attempting to state "Spanish is spoken here" (se habla espanol), are misspelled as something like "se hablo espanol." Popular English examples include signs reportedly seen on a Majorcan shop entrance declaring, "English Well Talking" and "Here Speeching American."

Curious signs like these unintentionally demonstrate just how little the guilty parties know about their self-declared second languages. We condescendingly smirk and shake our heads at their blunders, believing that we would never make such an embarrassing mistake. Such blunders are surely rare occurrences limited to small, backward towns far from our corporate and professional worlds, right?

In reality, such mistakes occur frequently, but we usually look right through them. What would you do if I were trying to sell you something and said, "我會說英文, 您需要幫忙嗎?" What?

Most reading this article probably do not understand Chinese, so you would have no idea what was written above in Chinese characters. Readers who do understand Chinese will see the irony in the fact that it reads, I can speak English. May I help you? Why would someone selling to an English speaker ever send a message in Chinese characters? Though speaking to the target audience in a language they do not understand sounds like a ridiculous idea, it is actually common. Companies ranging from million-dollar small businesses to billion-dollar corporate giants attempt to market to international clients with similar futility when they fail to follow what I call "the Golden Rule of Localization": speak the language of the buyer.

One multibillion-dollar technology company has a Japanese-language website that attempts to guide its visitors to other-language versions of the site via a language drop-down menu in the site's top right corner. If potential customers manage to find this drop-down menu on the all-Japanese Web page, they see the following three language options: "英語," "フランス語" and "ドイツ語." How very helpful! These options clearly mark where to click to find the English translation, right?

A more helpful link to the English version would read "English," not "英語." Likewise the other two options should not be written in Japanese characters nor written in English as "French" and "German," an error commonly seen on English websites. Instead, each language option should be displayed just as the target customer would want to see it in his or her own language. "French" should be written "Francais," "German" should be written "Deutsch" and a return link back to the Japanese page should be written "日本語."

When companies make the effort to see things from a foreign-language client's point of view, most will quickly see the wisdom of speaking the buyer's language and will resolve the problem quickly. However, there are always those who adopt an ostrich strategy, burying their heads in the sand and hoping everyone else will also be blind to the problem. "I don't see a problem," exclaimed one website marketing manager when confronted with an almost identical issue. "No customers have ever complained that they could not find the translation they needed."

Few potential customers will ever make the effort to tell a company they cannot read or find the translations. They will simply move on to a competitor's website where they can actually find what they need in their language.

Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt once said, "If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying from you, dann mussen Sie Deutsch sprechen." In other words, "then you must speak my language, German." Even across borders, the customer is still always right. This is true for almost all international businesses except for those rare monopolies like the German Coast Guard that have no incentive to expand abroad.

So, laugh a little the next time you see a sign that says, "We Spik Inglish," but let it also be a reminder that these mistakes are more common than most people think. If we take the necessary precautions, we can prevent the blunders that might send customers elsewhere.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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