What’s more important? Having perfect grammar or being understood?
English is the most spoken language in the world, but more than half of the people who speak it learned it as a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language. This opens the door for a multitude of accents and dialects, and countless opportunities for misunderstanding.
In this episode, our host Kyla Sims speaks to linguist and polyglot, Luis Miguel Rojas Berscia about how language works and what happens when languages collide. Global Communications Specialist, Heather Hanson, then weighs in on what we lose when we dub people “bad” English speakers. Hansen encourages us to stop being language snobs and shares her tips on understanding and being understood.
You'll also here from real employees of Staffbase as they meet in Frankfurt, Germany for the first time and discuss what gets 'lost in translation' while working in a global, multicultural, multilingual workplace.
Kyla Sims: Test, test, test, test, test. Can you hear me? Hi everybody, it's Kyla, and I am in Frankfurt, Germany. Lots of people. Obviously lots of people talking, but you also hear some techno music for an event we like to call Staffbase Camp. It is 9:30 in the morning, and what else do you want to listen to at 9: 30 in the morning? Every year Staffbase gathers its 800 employees from across the globe in one spot to finally meet face- to- face. Yeah, we're getting pumped up. Most for the very first time. I need some coffee, which that is not lost in translation. Everybody wants that coffee.
One of the coolest things about working at Staffbase is that my colleagues are from all over the world. So I'm taking this opportunity to ask about what it's like when things get lost in translation, which will not be hard here. Here we have people from Germany, of course. Hello.
Staffbase Camper 1: Test, test, test. Can you hear me? This is so cool.
Kyla Sims: New Canadians from South America.
Staffbase Camper 2: I'm Felipe. I'm Brazilian, and I moved to Canada four years ago.
Kyla Sims: And people who've immigrated from the Middle East.
Staffbase Camper 3: My name is Temmuz Güzel, my mother language is Turkish and English.
Kyla Sims: The majority of people whose first language isn't English. I've brought my little microphone along with me, so I can chat up a few of these fine folks and ask them some questions that I've had on my mind. What is one word in your native language that doesn't have an English translation?
Staffbase Camper 1: Well, so one word that comes to mind is Feierabend. Feier is party, and Abend is evening, so it's when you are off work, you have Feierabend, which is more than off- time. It's like, "Oh yeah, I have Feierabend. I am out of here. I have my downtime."
Staffbase Camper 3: There is this words in Turkish, it is Yakamoz, and it means when the moonlight hits the surface of the sea, so you have this beautiful moon reflection on the sea.
Kyla Sims: That's very nice.
Staffbase Camper 2: It's a word that doesn't exist in any language. It only exists in Portuguese that we say saudade. It's when we really miss someone, and you can't translate. And for an immigrant like me, it's a kind of a word that means a lot because we are always missing someone, we're always missing someone we left behind.
Kyla Sims: How can one language have a word for something and another just doesn't? Where did these gaps come from, and what can they teach us? Can unique words and phrases give us a peek into another culture or community? And how can we communicate effectively when there are so many opportunities for misunderstanding? Today, we're going to explore all of this, and find out what happens when we get lost in translation.
You are listening to Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase and I'm your host Kyla Sims. In this episode, we are diving into the wide world of language. We live in a global neighborhood, where we can ask Stockholm how they're doing, share art direction feedback with Berlin, and meet up with Tokyo for drinks all in the same hour. We live in an ecosystem of
constant convenient contact. Even if we live on opposite sides of the world, we can share our lives, our work, everything, with just a few clicks. And that is the reality of my work life.
So as you may know, I work for a company called Staffbase. And aside from making this killer podcast, running incredible live and digital events, and creating resources for the internal communications community, our bread and butter is being the industry- leading employee communication management platform for large organizations. And we are becoming a large organization in our own right. With 800 employees from various backgrounds and cultures, Staffbase is a truly global organization that's continuing to expand. It's really cool, I don't even actually know how many languages we speak, but I know it's a lot.
English is the main language we use in our communications, but meeting all of my colleagues in Frankfurt really got me thinking. After hearing their stories about communicating at work in a language that is not their native tongue, I wondered what different languages and their development could teach us about how to communicate better. Hello, how are you?
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: Hi Kyla. Thank you. I'm doing well, enjoying the great weather we have here in the Netherlands, it's so sunny. Being ironic, of course but...
Kyla Sims: So, I invited someone who is well versed in the languages of the world to come and chat with me.
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: My name is Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia.
Kyla Sims: Luis Miguel is a scholar, a linguist, and a polyglot. If you're unfamiliar with the term, a polyglot is someone who speaks and writes many languages. And for Luis Miguel, it's quite the list.
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: I have studied over 35 languages, but I have a conversational of communicative competence in more than 15 of them. I have dedicated my entire life to language.
Kyla Sims: Where did your love of languages begin?
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: I was very, very young, say three, four, five years old, and I was looking at a world map with my mom. And I was fascinated by the differences between our
way of speaking and the way people spoke outside our home. So I asked my mother, " How do people speak in this country, and how do they speak in this country?" And she would just tell me the names of the languages that were spoken in the countries I was pointing. And I got really curious and I said, " I want to learn these languages as well, one day I'll speak them all." Of course, I was just a child. I didn't know that there were over 7, 000 languages in the world. And so that will never happen, I'll die.
Kyla Sims: Oh, I believe in you.
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: Thank you so much.
Kyla Sims: Language and all of its intricacies is Luis Miguel's true passion. Adding more tongues and dialects is a way for him to study the deeper meanings behind what language is all about. This passion took Luis Miguel all over the world, including one very special place that would turn out to be a treasure trove of language insights. Heading to the northern jungled reaches of Peru to meet the Shuar people.
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: There had not been many studies on Shuar, most people were focusing on languages that were about to disappear. But in the case of Shuar, Shuar is an indigenous language, but it's very vital, so all generations speak the language. You can talk in Shuar to children, to elders, they will all understand it. It's true that Shuar may potentially be endangered soon, but it's also true that it's strength is there, very prominent.
Kyla Sims: To develop his understanding of the language of the Shuar people, Luis Miguel brought with him a tool that linguists call The Frog Story.
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: Oh yeah. That's a sort of a stimulus material we use in linguistics. It's called The Frog Story. And The Frog Story comes from a book called Frog, Where Are You? It's a series of pictures that depict the story of these three characters. The first page you see a child and a dog in a very western- like bedroom, and they are looking at a frog that is inside a bottle that the child caught in the forest. They are looking at it very curiously, and then they go to bed. And then all of a sudden the frog escapes. What's interesting is there is no text, so you can basically improvise the story yourself in your own words. We linguists use this story to have a baseline story. It will allow us to collect, say many instances of the same story in a community, and then you can compare and see what's different grammatically, phonologically, et cetera.
Kyla Sims: Luis Miguel's research with the frog story led to an interesting discovery. The stories the Shuar told him vary depending on whether the individual being interviewed had encountered a neighboring language like Spanish.
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: One of the very interesting findings I would say that has to do with the use of embedded sentences. In English, you say something like, " I think that he was doing something," or, " I suppose that," and then you have this that clause embedded to a main sentence. And the interesting thing was " shall we" has of course grammatical ways of expressing, embedding, you have these grammatical apparatus. It's not that it doesn't exist as it's being claimed for other Amazonian languages, which is interesting in itself, but the interesting thing is that people with not much education in the Shuar area would not resort to these grammatical means to express complex concepts.
They would've used a lot of simple sentences, but the people that had a lot more education, that have had a lot more contact with Spanish, that have been instructed in Spanish, that went to university and have read a lot would resort more to the use of this grammatical means in Shuar. And that probably has to do with language contact and the fact that those constructions in Spanish that are in the minds of these people as well are to some extent strengthening the frequency of use of the " shall we" construction when they speak Shuar.
Kyla Sims: And learning this about how contact sort of changes the way that they use their language, what did that mean to you as a researcher and someone who loves language?
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: Well, one of the ideas that language is the product of contact, not contact between languages because that doesn't really exist, but the contact between people, one- on- one contact you can say. At this stage now, for instance, you and I were having a nice conversation, and our linguistic repertoires are in contact as well, so we are modulating our linguistic competence to understand each other. Otherwise, I would be speaking maybe Peruvian Spanish and you wouldn't understand a word, right? But the product of these modulation, this constant navigating through the cease of linguistic variation when we talk to each other, over time lead to language change and the creation of new ways of speaking and eventually the creation of new dialects and languages.
Kyla Sims: Now, when you talk about things being lost in translation, there's often this fascination with unique phrases or words that languages have that don't translate to other languages exactly. Why do you think people get so caught up in these words? And second, is that a useful way to think about language?
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: People are always fascinated by what is different, and sometimes that leads to a sort of exotification or exoticization, I don't know what the word is now. I'm lost in translation, of the other. But in all the languages of the world, you will find words, concepts that are very diﬃcult to translate in our own languages. In the case of European languages, say Spanish, English, French, our languages are closer. So it is a lot easier to translate from one of these languages to the other. But when it comes to languages, say different as Chinese, as Thai, as Mongolian or Amazonian languages into Spanish or in other European languages, you face a lot of problems because it's not just one, but it's many concepts that are different. Does that mean that it's impossible to translate? No. It's not impossible, but we will need to resort to a lot of paraphrasing. And we will need to know both cultures really well.
Without knowledge of the other culture, we will keep mystifying the other culture as it happens with these so- called inexistent words. One of the most interesting characteristics of language is that we can put together two pieces of semantic information and make them into a word, and we can do that with two pieces, with three pieces, with four pieces. All the words we have in our languages are made up or are constructed that way. Many other words in our languages have these ingredients as well, but we find some in one word and we find some other in other words. We don't have a specific word that has collapsed all these meanings together into a single word, but the ingredients exist. That is beautiful because that's universal. There is no single language that doesn't do such a thing.
Kyla Sims: What advice do you have for folks who are responsible for trying to facilitate communication in these cross- cultural multilingual workspaces?
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: There is no single recipe that will work for an individual, but being interested in the individual on the other side is one of the most important things. There is no recipe to be a good intercultural consultant. That doesn't really exist. There has to be some inner curiosity for the other, interest in the other. If that doesn't exist, nobody will be intercultural. That's impossible.
Kyla Sims: You are listening to Infernal Communication, a podcast brought to you by Staffbase where we dive into the deeper conversations happening behind some of the biggest comms problems and puzzles that impact organizations and beyond. If you're enjoying the show so far, make sure you follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen. If you like the show and wouldn't mind helping us spread the word of Infernal Communication, please leave us a review and let us know what you think. You can also check out the show on our website by going to InfernalCommunication. com.
In this episode, we are taking a trip around the world to look at language, it's role in connection between people and culture and what it means to communicate when we live or work in a community where many languages are spoken. When I was in Frankfurt at Staffbase Camp, I went on the hunt for moments and words in my colleagues' lives that didn't quite translate. It might be a little diﬃcult this morning because I think we were all up a little late last night dancing and having a great time. So we'll see if anybody wants to talk today. Have you had any experiences with things being lost in translation?
Staffbase Camper 4: Yeah, it's actually the reason why I stopped learning French.
Kyla Sims: Really?
Staffbase Camper 4: Yeah, because unfortunately I had one of those experiences where in an exam, it was French, and I asked if I had a dog and I used the wrong verb, and I said I was a dog. And people who were testing all laughed because it was just funny because I didn't know. It was just so... Yeah, and I just really took that to heart.
Staffbase Camper 5: It happens every time. Coming to Canada, I have to speak in English is not easy for me and trying to bring all those concepts from Spanish to English is not an easy thing.
Kyla Sims: Getting lost in translation can be scary. For those still learning the lingo or know it, but still feel like an outsider, it can be hard to find your voice when you're among native English speakers. And after my talk with Luis Miguel, I started to understand that fixating on unique words and phrases that don't translate can exoticize a whole language. When we focus on our differences rather than our similarities, we can miss opportunities to connect.
Heather Hansen: It kills me.
Kyla Sims: Yeah.
Heather Hansen: It's like it's some secret cultural thing that the rest of us in the world could never possibly understand.
Kyla Sims: That's Heather Hansen.
Heather Hansen: I do get a bit wrong like about this.
Kyla Sims: Founder of the Global Speech Academy based in Singapore.
Heather Hansen: I am a global communications specialist, so I help top global leaders communicate clearly and confidently, especially in English- speaking settings that are multicultural, multilingual, multinational. And I've been doing that now for over 15 years.
Kyla Sims: She also has a bone to pick about my search for words and phrases that allegedly don't translate. So the risk of riling you up, I hope that's okay.
Heather Hansen: Yeah. Because there is a lot of debate around this link between psychology and culture and language, and if you don't have a word for it in your language, can you truly understand that concept? And I would say absolutely you can. So for me personally, I don't buy it, that argument that if you don't have the word for it, then you don't experience the world in the same way. I think we do. I think we have a lot more similarities and differences, and I really believe that underneath it all, we are all having a very similar human experience. Even though we may express that experience differently, we are much more alike than different.
Kyla Sims: So it's not like it's that lost in translation, it's there.
Heather Hansen: Idioms as well. Like a little birdie told me this and that. And it's funny too, in the different languages, the idioms very often do not translate, but very often we have a different idiom that's similar or means the same thing. In American English, and I'm assuming maybe it's the same in Canada, I don't know, but we have the saying he or she is not the sharpest tool in the shed, meaning not incredibly bright. Well, in Danish they don't say the sharpest tool in the shed, they say the sharpest knife in the drawer, and it has the same exact meaning.
And when you hear it, it's like, "Sharpest knife in the drawer. That's so funny." But then it's like, "Wait, so is that similar to this?" And you can make the connections, but sometimes they're just totally different. They have some saying about the cow on the ice, and it's like, " What? I have no clue where you're going with that. I have no idea what that translates to." And it's really funny with idioms, and I typically will always encourage people not to use idioms, but it's really from the perspective of don't use them assuming the person understands what you're saying. If you want to use them, it can be a lot of fun in international settings to use them to say, " In English, we have this saying not the sharpest tool in the shed, which means this."
Kyla Sims: If we are concerned with having our communications be inclusive, it's more than just like, " Oh, we can't use that because people won't understand it." It's like we're signaling that they do not belong in this conversation, and that sucks.
Heather Hansen: It does suck.
Kyla Sims: That's not what we want.
Heather Hansen: Yeah. In a nutshell-
Kyla Sims: At all.
Heather Hansen: In a nutshell, that sucks. I've actually consciously cut my vocabulary in order to use words that are common, that people understand, that are understood across varieties of levels of English knowledge because that's how I can be more inclusive of others regardless of their language level. That's why I think I like to get on my soapbox and talk about this because it's once again taking it back to that focus on building understanding and connection, and that's really what communication is about.
Kyla Sims: Heather works with organizations to reduce the communication gap in our multi- linguistic world. She was seeing how organizations that operated globally but communicated in English were struggling to elevate and promote non- native English speakers. Whether they had trouble managing odd English grammar, strange idioms or jargon, or if they just couldn't get a word in over their native English- speaking colleagues in the boardroom, non- native speakers were struggling, regardless of their expertise or competence. Organizations wanted to blame this on bad English, but Heather had other ideas. She thinks bad English should be embraced.
Heather Hansen: To make it very, very clear, there is no such thing as bad English. There's no such thing as good English, as proper English, grammar that we must adhere to, certain pronunciations we must use, yet there are so many varieties of English in the world. The way we speak English in Singapore versus Nigeria versus India, all completely different varieties of English. And many of the people in all of the places I mentioned, most of them actually speak English natively. They are born into the language, they speak it at home, they have a full English education, and yet many of us in North America sit around thinking that these countries over there, they all had to learn in school, their English is so bad. And then they come to me with this inferiority complex like, " Oh, my English is so bad." And I say, " What do you mean? What is bad about it? It's perfect. There's nothing wrong with it." " Oh, my accent's so heavy or people don't understand me or I use different words." And so what? When I'm living in Singapore, is it the Singaporeans with bad English or is it me with bad English? As far as I'm concerned, if I'm living in Singapore, I should be speaking Singapore English. This is where I live. In any other country I live in, I learn the native language. So why haven't I done that here?
Kyla Sims: From what I hear, this is not uncommon. English tends to be the quote, unquote " dominant language" in international business communication, but I wanted ask you, is this actually true? Is English the language of business?
Heather Hansen: I would say yes, absolutely. We are using English as the lingua franca in global business, and that's where I think we have to be very careful about the biases that we have. What's very interesting, I just read this the other day, it was a study done by Asia CEO Forum, and they're a networking group for CEOs and C- suite professionals based in Singapore and Southeast Asia. And they did a survey of their members. This was back in, I believe, 2017, and their numbers showed that 80% of their membership were expats, the white
Westerner that was coming in. And they were talking about why aren't more Asians coming up into leadership? And I found that really shocking that such a huge majority of the global leaders were still being pulled from the Western world. Singapore's education system and universities rank in the top, top of global universities. There's no reason that we would need to be pulling so much Western talent. But a big part of this, and what I've seen in my work and when people get sent to me, it's, " Well, this person, they just don't sound, I don't know, global enough. They don't know how to communicate with the American Board of Directors."
Kyla Sims: What biases have you witnessed in the way that we perceive different languages and accents?
Heather Hansen: There's actually a very recent study that just came out in Canada that was studying when are children starting to make preferences about the accents around them? And their study found it was already at age five. They were given a group of teachers.
Teacher 1: Right, class.
Heather Hansen: And they just listened to the teachers speak.
Teacher 1: You, boy.
Heather Hansen: "Which one would you like to have as your teacher, and which one do you think is the best teacher?" And these five- year- olds would choose the teacher that sounded like them. This is a very real internal bias. And then as we get older and we're watching movies and films, think of all of the bad guys. They don't sound like the American superhero. I mean, I grew up on Indiana Jones and Die Hard and all of the bad guys. They're Russian, they're German.
Kyla Sims: Oh my goodness.
Heather Hansen: Then we move out of the Cold War and then depending on the geopolitical landscape, our villains change. We see that in our media, we see it in our movies, and they don't want to stop and listen because this whole life of being enculturated to believe that other
accents are different, they're wrong, they're foreign, they're not as educated, they aren't as smart. In global environments especially, we should embrace a lot more of what we believe is bad. We need to slow down. We need to simplify and stop using these enormous words thinking we're being so impressive when no one understands. We need to stop using all the idioms that are culturally specific that no one knows what they mean when the American walks in and uses football terms. And so I'm always saying bad English is good for business, that we need to simplify how we are communicating, focus on clarity and understanding because that's what gets the job done. As long as you can understand and you are being understood, then you are speaking English perfectly and that's where we should place our focus.
Kyla Sims: Do you have any final advice for the folks out there who are working in organizations, trying to communicate, trying to collaborate in these cross- linguistic, cross- cultural contexts? What advice do you have for them?
Heather Hansen: Well, it's both sides of the equation, right? And from the more advanced level speaker side, I think it's about slowing things down, making more space, being comfortable with that silence. There are many people in the room who might be quiet, and it doesn't mean that they don't have something to say, but you've filled that silence so quickly, they just needed another split second to get the confidence to raise their hand. So if you're coming from that more dominant position, it's really time to turn down that loud voice to invite other people into the conversation who haven't spoken yet.
Staffbase Camper 4: I pay extra attention. And if I realize someone, it's their second language, I listen a lot more to what their actions. I give them more space and attention.
Heather Hansen: To think twice about do I really have something to say right now or am I making some noise and really listening, so trying to break those bad listening habits. But on the other side, and I know this from my time in Denmark and Austria and Switzerland, and when I've been speaking foreign languages, there's also a part where I know I need to make a bigger effort. Like, " Come on, Heather, just raise your hand. Speak up, jump in. You can do this."
Staffbase Camper 6: So sometimes it is like a fight in your head, "Okay, what is the right translation for this?"
Heather Hansen: And it's about having that confidence to join the conversation, to turn up the volume of your voice, to not be talked over, to know that you have something important to say and that you can say it. And it doesn't have to be perfect, that it's about the connection with the person, not the perfection of the language, and to not be so self- conscious.
Staffbase Camper 2: I'm not a hundred percent the same person as I am in Portuguese, but I'm getting there.
Kyla Sims: Yeah, I'd say your personality comes through. You're a pretty funny guy.
After my conversations with Luis Miguel and Heather, I felt a bit embarrassed, to be honest. As a native English speaker, there were so many things that I had never even considered. Even my little game at Staffbase Camp to find words that don't translate was rooted in this idea of otherness that isn't helpful for connection or communication. Luckily, I have some truly incredible colleagues who entertained my silly little project and showed me just how skilled at connecting they truly are, regardless of how quote, unquote " bad" their English is.
It's clear from what Luis Miguel and Heather shared with us today and my experiences with my colleagues, that communication is about connection, even if you're not speaking the same language. Turns out, if we want to be great communicators, we need to stop focusing on what makes us different and get curious about how we are actually alike. The languages we speak change how we are perceived and how we present ourselves. But language is just a tool and being perfect at it isn't a requirement to be a good communicator. Regardless of what languages we're speaking, we're all people, and we all want to connect. If we focus on our shared human experience, we can avoid getting lost in translation and discover all the wonderful and weird ways that we are all linked together.
Today, our guests were linguist and lecturer, Luis Miguel Rojas- Berscia, Heather Hansen, founder of Global Speech Academy and author of Unmuted. And finally, I want to say a huge thank you to my friends at Staffbase who I cornered on buses, in stairwells, and in backrooms to get sound bites for this episode. Those conversations were supposed to be little five minute recordings that turned into hours long conversations that were incredible and enlightening. I am truly grateful that they chose to share their stories with me and the beautiful conversations that came out of that experience. So thank you. You're the best. I'm Kyla Sims, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase with production support from JAR Audio. Join us next time when we are going to explore how we communicate beyond the language and words we use, including what we may be communicating with just our eyes.
Dr. Sophie Wohltjen: When you're looking into somebody else's eyes, you're not only getting information from them, but you're also sort of self- referencing seeing their impression of you.
Kyla Sims: Don't forget to hit follow an Apple Podcast, or wherever you get your shows. And if you like today's episode, leave us a review. We would love to know what you think. Until then, thanks for listening.
Kyla is a writer, content creator, speaker and host of Infernal Communication.