Posts Tagged ‘english’

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Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

Tuesday 7 September, 2010

Fellow T’bird Bart Kohnhorst alerted Thunderbird President Angel Cabrera to this article in the New York Times: Does Your Language Shape How You Think? & he blogged about it, which brought it to my attention.  My 1st reaction is “Of course language shapes how we think.”  My experience is in Germany in German.  Here are my thoughts on the relationship between the German language & how Germans think:

  • German is a very structured language & Germans think in a very structured way.
  • Germans are more exact because their language compels them to be.
  • There are 3 genders, masculine, feminine, & neuter-I found that many relationships are still very old fashioned, reflecting dated gender roles.
  • Sentences usually follow a pretty consistent pattern, but in some cases throw the verb (or its prefix) to the end: occasionally the Germans will go a little wild.
  • Many foreigners find many of German’s rules complicated;  the Germans recognize they have an advantage with foreigners speaking their native tongue & are not hesitant to use it.

Here are a few observations on how Americans think & its relationship with the English language:

  • perhaps we as Americans see men & women equally because we don’t differentiate between them as other languages do
  • some other cultures don’t focus on the future like Americans do because their languages only speak in 1 tense, usually the present tense
  • English is known to be full of exceptions-is it any surprise that we’re encouraged to seek the exceptional?
  • might how Americans think of geography& space (always referenced to where we are) a reflection of our self-centeredness compared to others who reference to direction (North, South, etc.)

So how does this apply to international business?  It just reinforces the need for global business people to learn as much of the language as they can of the people with whom they’re doing business wherever they go.  It will give you some insights into how they think, which can provide some small advantage or simply bring a small observation that you might have missed thinking of the world only in English.  Every little bit helps.

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why save Greenlandic?

Monday 31 August, 2009

I read with interest this article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday section Saving world’s words by Jason George. The reason I’m highlighting this article is that Americans tend to minimize the importance of learning foreign languages because English is so predominant in the world today.  They refuse to localize their websites into different languages, yet expect foreign buyers to feel comfortable buying in a language that’s not their own.  Some would say, “Let foundering languages die.”  My response would be, to quote from the article, “language is much more than words-it’s our culture, our history.  It’s what connects people to one another.”  By failing to learn others’ languages & expecting others to communicate with us in our language, we are missing prime opportunities to learn about other cultures, which can make big differences in negotiating with foreigners.

In learning German, it occurred to me that there is a chicken & egg relationship between languages & how people think.  German is a very structured language, with sentence elements in specific positions, nouns taking certain forms, etc.  In turn, Germans are typically methodical & precise, a direct reflection of their language.  I don’t know if the language teaches them how to think or if how they think determines how they speak;  it just seems to me the 2 are inextricably linked.  In trying to learn French while working @ the Canadian consulate to work better with the Quebecers, the differences between French & German became apparent, just like the differences in people.  German for the most part is pronounced as it’s spelled.  French leaves a lot more open, just as the French are a lot more laissez faire than the Germans.

Americans need to learn foreign languages to address the world in its terms rather than expecting the world to accede to our terms.  It’s generally ethnocentric to assume that all businesspeople speak English well-some don’t.  It’s simply wrong to assume that intelligence is reflected by the ability to speak English, which Americans assume all the time.  There are many many foreign business people who don’t speak English very well, but do a great job of leading their local organizations.  Americans limit their opportunities to do business in places where they can’t speak the language.   Although other English-speaking countries can be a good place to start, citizens of those countries typically suffer from the same blinders that Americans do, missing opportunities in places where they don’t speak the language.  Languages provide insights into values & decision-making, which can be immensely helpful when dealing with foreigners.  Again, German reflects how the Germans think, so keeping that in mind when working with them makes things much easier.  Respect other languages by encouraging & learning them.

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local google exec’s biggest challenge

Tuesday 9 December, 2008

I caught this little tidbit in the career path column of the Chicago Tribune by Ann Therese Palmer Google exec crafts quite a story

What interested me most was this quote:

“Q: What’s the most challenging assignment you’ve had?

A: I moved to London to set up Google’s Europe, Middle East and Africa industry sales strategy. I was in charge of a business plan covering more than 30 countries with different languages and cultures. The biggest challenge was not trying to replicate my U.S. experience. At first, I overcompensated being respectful of local culture.

But I learned it’s OK to be an American in Europe. You just need to acknowledge what you bring that’s unique. American practices are welcomed, as long as you’re locally relevant.”

What I find interesting is that this pretty highly positioned executive with a hugely successful company noted that his biggest challenge was an international one.  1st of all, hats off to him for not being an American business imperialist, as many are, by acknowledging the importancce of working in different languages & cultures.  Kudos for compensating in being respectful of different cultures.  Many US business people are proverbial bulls in the china shop in approaching foreign businesses, without doing any research about the local business culture, language, history, politics, economics, etc. all of which frame the international business context.  They just make their proposal without consideration how it fits locally & wonder why it doesn’t fly.

It’s a constant management battle to balance global vs. local interests, which often conflict with 1 another.  Exercising centralized control in situations which require local decision-making is always tough.

Many people love Americans in Europe-when I spent 7 months in Poland, I met many who wanted to meet/work with me simply because I was visiting less-visited parts of Poland & many had never met a real American before.

It’s also notable that what’s unique, i.e. competitive advantage, might or might not transfer to different places, i.e. be locally relevant.

It’s finally interesting to note that he was stationed in London, another English-speaking metropolis, which has its own advantages & limitiations.  London is unquestionably an international financial mecca, but I believe it still suffers from the same malady that many American cities do, that English-speaking residents have little proclivity to learn foreign languages because of the widespread use of English.  I think London’s foreign flair comes from its past links with former British commonwealth countries like India & Hong Kong which enabled many foreign nationals to emigrate to the UK.  English-speakers world-wide are spoiled while the rest of the world speak to us in our language rather than us addressing them in theirs.