“Oh, You Spoke the Culture and She Spoke the Language”

The quintessential Indian term, “License Raj” pejoratively describes environments where governmental approval – administered by imperious bureaucrats – is essential for day-to-day activities of people and businesses. I used the term at a recent meeting I attended to describe my sojourn (1992—1994) in France. (Incidentally, none of this is a commentary on today’s France and India.)

French state run utilities regularly sent notices that said, “We will come on X day at Y time to read your meter. If you are not at home, we will levy a 50 Franc charge. If you need to change this appointment, you must also pay a 50 Franc charge.” My wife (India-born, but US-bred) spoke French well, but found such demands incomprehensible. I didn’t speak French, but having grown up in India, readily understood them. Ultimately, she found France more challenging than I did.

While several people laughed at my story, one observed, “Oh, you spoke the culture and she spoke the language!” The depth of this casual statement, spoken in jest, stayed with me.

Many scholars and adults believe that learning someone else’s language allows us to understand how he/she thinks. So, premier universities had – and still have – language requirements for undergraduates. Years ago, the European Union, against significant opposition, passed laws requiring children to learn languages that where not their own national languages. When the best of our companies open offices in countries far from home, they populate these offices with people who have more than a nodding acquaintance with the host country’s language.

Indeed, when the Disney company opened EuroDisney outside Paris (while I was living there), it hired bilingual – often fluently so – people. Yet, EuroDisney was an unmitigated disaster at its opening; I took my toddler there and swore I would never return. The Park turned around only when Disney acquiesced to a European – French – management takeover.

So, the knowledge of a language, however proficient, may not necessarily translate into an understanding of the associated culture. Conversely, the understanding of a culture, may not necessarily require fluency in the language. In the language of mathematicians, neither is necessary nor sufficient.

As we create ever more complex – networked – organizations that span the globe, we must understand this issue in greater depth than we do. How do you think businesses should deal with this culture-language issue?

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