Language is central to the expression of culture. Within each cultural group, the use of words reflects the lifestyle, attitudes and many of the customs of that group. Language is not only a key to understanding the group, it is the principal way of communicating within it.

A language usually defines the parameters of a particular culture. Thus if several languages are spoken within the borders of a country, that country is seen to have as many cultures. In Canada, for instance, both English and French are spoken; in Belgium, French and Flemish; while in South Africa there are 11 official languages with a number of other African languages also spoken by the population. In addition, there are often variations within a language – different dialects, accents, pronunciations and terminology may distinguish one cultural group from another, e.g. English-speaking South Africans, the British, Americans and Australians.

Learning some of the subtleties of a language can assist greatly in avoiding confusion:

Several brief examples of mistranslated English idioms or expressions can be cited to illustrate how often blunders have been made. One European firm certainly missed the point when it translated the expression “out of sight, out of mind” as “invisible things are insane” in Thailand. There is also the story of the phrase “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” being translated to “the liquor is holding out all right, but the meat has spoiled”. And consider, finally, a translation of “Schweppes Tonic Water” to the Italian “ii water”. The copy was speedily changed to “Schweppes Tonic” because ‘il water” idiomatically indicates a bathroom.
(Source: D A Ricks, Big Business Blunders)

The importance of being able to understand other languages cannot be over-emphasised – this is particularly relevant when executives travel abroad and are negotiating with people of different language groups. Because English is the predominant language of business in the western world, people with English as a home language are usually reluctant to learn foreign languages and tend to expect others to converse with them in English. In contrast, European and Far Eastern businesspersons have been willing to learn and converse in the language of their trading partners, leading inevitably to a better understanding and better rapport between the parties concerned. If exporters do not speak the language of the country they plan to visit, they should at least establish the extent to which their own language is spoken there and, if necessary, engages the services of an interpreter during discussions or negotiations.

If promotional material needs to be prepared in a foreign language, it is important to ensure that none of the meaning is lost or distorted when the information is translated. Thus, translations should be undertaken within the country concerned or at least by a native of the country in question.