The challenges of business writing in a multilingual culture

business writing,multilingual culture,South Africa,languages,English,second language

There are 78 different living languages in Côte d’Ivoire alone

It’s hard enough to write successfully for business in a single-language country. But now try to do that in a country where there are 11 official languages … I asked South African content writer Jade Mitchell to tell us how she copes, and to share her advice for the rest of us when we need to do similar projects. Sz

I love language, and while English will always be my first love, it’s only when I can contribute to an adult conversation in Afrikaans, or actually understand something in Zulu that I get a delighted little shiver of accomplishment down my spine.

You see, like many pale faced South Africans of English descent, I am ashamed of my mostly monoglot existence, especially when my Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa peers have mastered at least 2 languages (and some locals are fluent in 5 or 6 languages).

South Africa is a country with 11 official languages, which, as you can imagine, can complicate most forms of communication- never mind the emergency signage.

Most of my multinational corporate clients with their roots in South Africa stick to English as the lingua franca, because here’s the thing: even if you do successfully accommodate all 11 languages in thiscountry, all bets are off as soon as you want to start doing business up north.

It is estimated that there are 78 different living languages in Côte d’Ivoire alone.

Having assisted a range of companies in different industries with their internal and above-the-line communications to our own Rainbow Nation, these are the tips I can share with anyone looking to communicate in English in a multilingual/ multicultural society.

1. Don’t try to be clever

I don’t mean reduce the complexity of your content… but don’t try to use metaphors or similes, don’t include industry in-jokes and surreptitious references.

Even if the crux of your message won’t be lost if these get misunderstood, or ignored, they add unnecessary bulk to your communication and just make it that much harder for a second (or third, or fourth) language speaker to ‘get’ what you’re trying to say.

2. Grading your language does not mean ‘dumbing it down’

‘Grading’ was a term I first learnt while completing my TESOL training course. It means choosing the simplest words and structure to communicate meaning. At first, I equated this to ‘dumbing down’, but that’s far from the case, especially with regards to business writing.

Your audience are still educated, intelligent adults. They will know immediately when they are being condescended to, even if they don’t understand all the words used.

Come on, you know when someone’s taking the p*ss out of you in their vernacular: it’s just like that.

Here’s an example of grading:

“Acquire comprehensive insurance that will indemnify you in the event of an unexpected occurrence.”

Graded to:

“Get full insurance* that will protect you if something happens.”


*Insurance stays ‘insurance’ and does not get graded to ‘cover’ because ‘cover’ has a dichotomous meaning.

3. Some things are universal

Unless you’re writing a will or a complex legal document, most communications can be graded and pared down to their essence to make them easier to understand. But you’re a writer, right? You want to add your own flair, your own personality, your own brand of ‘whiz, bang, pop’.

That’s cool: just focus on universal human truths to guide you when it comes to adding humour, emotion and tone.

Everyone wants to be loved and needed. Everyone wants to improve the quality of their lives, protect their children, enjoy a wonderful meal with their partner, and spend more time with their family.

And everyone likes a friendly, conversational tone, especially when they’re being asked to understand a language other than their own.

4. But some things… aren’t

Cultural relevance is very important.

I would be reluctant to write anything for the Middle Eastern market simply because I haven’t got a cooking clue what saucy slang is currently doing the rounds, or what subjects might be unexpectedly taboo.

Here’s an example I probably shouldn’t share, so I’ll keep it as vague as possible to avoid legal ramifications:

An agency that I know recently created a character for a campaign and named it what they thought was a ‘cute, local name’. Unfortunately, in one of the countries in which this little mascot was sent to represent his brand, this name directly translated into the local language as ‘idiot’ or ‘retard’….

So… yes. Cultural relevance is very important.

5. Imagine it in another language

Here’s an exercise- find a website heavy on content in any language you don’t understand – Polish, Chinese, Urdu, it doesn’t matter. Grab a page of text and stick it into Google Translate.

Do you see the problem?

Where care has not been taken to pare down sentence structure and meaning, entire paragraphs can lose meaning when someone is trying to translate word for word.

Not all second language speakers are as green as you are to the finer nuances of modern Mandarin. In fact most of them speak better English than you will ever speak a second language, so props where they’re due….But when you’re writing for an audience with a varied range of proficiency, the best bet is to keep it straightforward, simple and conversational.

Just like you’d want to be spoken to.

business writing,multilingual culture,South Africa,languages,English,second language

Jade Mitchell & friend

Jade Mitchell is a freelance writer, content strategist and director working and living with her partner in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has been in the industry for 10 years, and when she’s not crunching copy or writing occasionally controversial, R-rated rants for her blog, she spends her time getting dirty in her vegetable garden and being bullied by her two cats.



photo credit: Dietmar Temps via photopin cc