Start of menu
Close Menu

How to navigate the language barrier when doing business in Asia

When it comes to doing business in Asia, negotiating the language barrier is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Here, we outline the best ways to succeed in a foreign tongue.

Opportunity knocks for Australian businesses keen to expand their operations in Asia. Trade agreements with China, Japan and Korea have diminished the barriers to trade in Northern Asia, while existing agreements with Singapore, Thailand and ASEAN nations ensure a wealth of opportunities for well-placed Australian businesses in a range of sectors: services, education, agriculture, finance, and many others.


Yet the path to prosperity is often far from smooth sailing. Expanding globally and embracing linguistic and cultural diversity can be a boon for businesses, but there are as many risks as there are rewards.


Culture shock


Cultural barriers can put Australian businesses in a bind. A PwC report released in 2014 suggests many Australian businesses “have a general ‘fear of the unknown’ when it comes to doing business in Asia … due largely to differences in cultural practices, traditions and, of course, language.”


And it's not just an Australian affliction. In a report compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2012, almost 50 per cent of the 572 executives surveyed said that “messages lost in translation” grounded cross-border business deals for their companies, while 64 per cent said their plans for expansion were hampered by poor communication skills.


The importance of interpreters


Language can have a significant effect on business culture, which makes the role of the interpreter all the more valuable – particularly in Asia. Effective interpreters serve as a kind of cultural liaison for businesses, and should be well-versed, not only in their native tongue, but in cultural norms and etiquette.


Even if English is the default language at a conference meeting, it’s important to consider cultural interpretation. Some may prefer to ‘save face’ to prevent humiliation; others may favour a more forthright approach. It’s wise to avoid jokes or colloquialisms, as they will most likely get lost in translation. Hiring the right interpreter can ensure fewer bumps in the road when communicating with local staff, suppliers, buyers, executives and customers. To properly prepare the interpreter, any niche or technical terms should be carefully explained, and translations of business cards, client lists, company profiles and other relevant documentation should be completed well ahead of time.


Conducting international business in a foreign country poses a host of legal complexities. Hiring lawyers familiar with your chosen country’s laws can minimise risks, fines and penalties.


Embrace technology


Thanks to the internet, research regarding key markets, competitors, interpreters and legal services can be done in a matter of minutes. It also presents an opportunity to test the waters: if you’re serious about an Asian expansion, consider localising your website, or making key information (contact details and the like) available in relevant languages.


Technology can help businesses break down the language barrier. While not a substitute or replacement for human interpreters, apps that combine machine translation and automatic speech recognition can boost an interpreter’s productivity. Translation services can also be used in brief email communications with customers, and may be useful for companies with software as a service (SaaS) and cloud offerings.