International Business: Downplaying linguistic ability can sometimes be to your advantage in business

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011 7:00 a.m. MST

"The problem I think is, like me before, she thinks in Tagalog,” speculated Miss Universe 1969 Gloria Diaz to ABS-CBN News in the Philippines. “So, ‘major major’ is what? Malaking malaki o bonggang bongga? The context is lost or misinterpreted abroad."

In contrast, the winning contestant, Jimena Navarrete of Mexico, answered her questions through an interpreter even though she also speaks English. This not only gave Miss Navarrete the opportunity to shield herself from perceived missteps by conveying her answers through a professional linguist, but also gave her a few extra seconds to think about her answer before responding. Although English is the language of instruction in the Philippines, former beauty queens and fans believe that Raj and future Filipino pageant contestants would fare better using an interpreter and speaking in their native tongue.

To put our best foot forward and make a positive impression, we all need to know our limitations. Sometimes, especially in international business, we must not attempt to do everything ourselves. A modest acceptance and acknowledgment of our own linguistic limitations can be strategically beneficial. Letting someone else — a native-speaking translator or interpreter — speak for us when our language skills are not up to par may serve us best and help us to avoid a “major, major” misunderstanding.

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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