I always think that people who are natives of a country; where there are only two official languages have one less thing to worry about in their lives. My country, South Africa, has eleven official languages and that obviously is one of the things that make us a proud rainbow nation. However, if you can speak only two of these eleven, it can sometimes pose a challenge. I often tell my friends who grew up in the province of Gauteng just how blessed they are that they can speak 50% or even more of the eleven languages.

South Africa has nine provinces and Gauteng is the one province where there is a serious mix of people from literally all walks of life. This is because Gauteng houses Johannesburg which is the economic power hub of Southern Africa. My friends from Gauteng don’t know this, but I am sometimes very uncomfortable when I go to meet their parents and I have to speak my language or English so we can understand each other better. Now I can understand some of the languages, but responding is a mission. Fortunately, most of their families can speak my language but I still feel really bad when they have to adjust their dialogues just to accommodate me.

Beyond just my friend’s families, navigating your way in public spaces in Johannesburg when you don’t speak some of the languages can be a bit problematic. Most South Africans would agree that Johannesburg is the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” and most of us come here because of the vastness of opportunities available. Whether I am catching a taxi; or trying to respond to an elderly person; or asking for something at the grocery store, I have noticed that when I make an attempt to answer the person in their language there is an automatic connection and when they pick up my limited vocabulary and my “shabby” accent they become more understanding and we able to meet each other half way and speak a language that serves us both.

I think we need to begin to appreciate that speaking someone’s language or being culturally sensitive is not just “pink and fluffy”. A language is not only about the verbal expressions, but sometimes it can embody the very essence of a nation’s identity. And in this global village, in order to be truly successful we have to be able to adjust and “speak” the language and culture of others.

Two interesting cases come to mind when I think of cultural understanding equaling success for one and failure for the other. When McDonalds was intending to launch in India it was completely willing to localize its offerings. India was a unique and very conservative market because most of the Indian population is vegetarian and they don’t eat beef and pork. As most of us are aware, beef is one of the core ingredients of the McDonalds brand; however in India, McDonalds adopted a concept called Glocalization (Globalization + Localization).They intended to obviously maintain global standards whilst also meeting the needs of the local customer (http://www.academia.edu and www.bbc.com). Though it was an expense to localize for India, it paid off big time. They adopted a very authentic Indian menu comprising of chicken, fish and vegetarian meals and what a success it has proved to be.

When Coca-Cola initially launched its sales campaign in Saudi Arabia it was not so successful. Since their sales team couldn’t speak Arabic and most of the Saudis didn’t speak much English they thought surely simple pictures would work to portray the message and they believed that to be a brilliant idea. So they put together three simple pictures and these were meant to be a story line:

  • Picture one showed a man lying in the hot desert sand totally exhausted and fainting.
  • Picture two then shows a man drinking Coca-Cola
  • Picture three shows the man now totally refreshed and on his feet running.

The simple message was meant to say that when you feeling exhausted because of the desert heat, have sip of coca-cola and you will regain your energy. Sounds simple enough right?

Wrong! What Coca-Cola failed to do was be culturally sensitive by speaking in a way relevant to the Saudis. The rest of the world read left to right however, Arabic readers go from right to left. To the Arabic people the advert read, when you feeling energetic (picture 3) take a sip of Coca-Cola (picture 2) you will faint and be exhausted (picture 1) (http://blog.asiantown.net/-/7257/this-is-why-coca-cola-failed-in-saudi-arabia). This obviously miscommunicated the intended message because to them it said stay away from Coca-Cola it will cause you to be dehydrated and faint. I do believe though that Coca-Cola has bounced back since then by investing a couple of million dollars into the Saudi Arabia market.

I think we can learn some interesting lessons from these multinational corporations and perhaps we can start becoming more aware of the languages and cultures of others around us and perhaps go further by engaging in a lingo that serves others. My friend, trust me when I say authentic human connections are more likely to be the new success in the near future.