Multilingualism: A key skill enabling successful international communication

globe speech bubblesby Claudia Vaccarone

In the global world of business, some languages like English, Chinese and Spanish are paramount to master to succeed in international communication. Furthermore, the advent of digital has not only facilitated new channels to reach new audiences: it has exposed our communications activities to global audiences by default. With this in mind, communications professionals who are multilingual are better prepared to harness the opportunities to reach culturally fragmented audiences as well as prevent the pitfalls of cultural bias and awkward translations that might involuntarily occur.

Research proves today many benefits of multilingualism, from effective multitasking, increased empathy and perspective, as well as delayed Alzheimer’s. But the most important one is perhaps a rewiring of the brain which allows multilinguals to interpret reality and react to it in a multifaceted way. In fact, language fluency and cultural sensitivity enable conversations: by seeing through the layers of cultural nuances multilingual communications professionals can build authentic bridges to communities around the world.

As the devil is always in the details, when dealing with multilingual projects communicators can apply five simple rules to avoid cultural or linguistic faux-pas:

  1. Be fluent. Cultivating language fluency is easier than ever today with access to foreign media, language learning applications and fun Youtube tutorials. It takes daily practice even for the most seasoned polyglot as language skills are like muscles and need to be exercised regularly.
  2. Show cultural sensitivity (don’t just google-translate!) When bringing a campaign abroad or targeting a specific group, it is not just a matter of semantic translations but several details can play into the way the message is accepted or not.
  3. Beware of stereotypes, bias & humour nuances. Stereotypes are the result of our brain wanting to categorise information in order to make sense of reality. This is heavily shaped by our culture, environment and daily experiences, which is why different communities build stereotypes toward other communities. When communicating across cultures these can prove to be embarrassing, so research is necessary to ensure nuances are bridged. Humour and colloquialism also can be challenging to translate.
  4. Beware of acronyms! An acronym in one language can mean something totally different in another. Beware of this potential minefield and always check and test.
  5. Reach out to experts & always test with natives. No matter how well you are versed in a foreign language, always make sure that your text, campaign, or multilingual project is tested with natives before sending it out in the world. A perfect neologism in your country or industry can be even insulting across the globe!

This article follows a presentation by Claudia Vaccarone and Michael Nord at the 2016 IABC World Conference in New Orleans. The presentation can be viewed here: