I was recently in Vietnam and having a late dinner with some colleagues from various universities. We were very fortunate in that we had someone who could speak passable Vietnamese (her words), as we were trying to find a place that would serve us local Vietnamese cuisine after “last-call”. As we were happily munching on a variety of dishes put together by the chef, we started discussing language. Our Vietnamese speaker was telling us she has the vocabulary of a 10 year old – enough to ask for directions and order food – the result of growing up in a Vietnamese family in the US. Just as we were getting in to the conversation, she exclaimed “Hot!!” and starting making waving gestures in front of her face.

“Spicy?” asked a colleague.

“No, temperature,” she replied.

It occurred to me, as it had often before, that English has a single word for both of these concepts. My limited knowledge of Bahasa (Malayu/Indonesia) had made me realise that there are different words for this in some languages – panas for temperature-hot, and pedas for spicy-hot in Bahasa is one such example. I asked her if this was the case in Vietnamese, and she informed me that it was.

One of our colleagues turned to me and asked me if I spoke any other languages. When I replied that I didn’t, she turned away and I felt shut out of any further conversation on language with her.

In an attempt to re-open that conversation, I then shared a story I often tell – where I tried to say¬†“ni hao ma” to some colleagues when I first moved to Singapore. Apparently my pronunciation was excellent, if I had wanted to ask “how is your mother’s horse.” ūüėź Everyone had started laughing and at 23 that put an end to further attempts at speaking¬†Putonghua (aka Mandarin). The Vietnamese speaker at the table shared a similar experience she had gone through in attempting to speak Spanish in the US.

It may have been my own perception, or it may have been an accurate description, however there have been a number of cases where I have experienced this or heard it from others – where those that are new to a language or who don’t speak a local/second language are not included in the “in-group.” However does that necessarily mean we can’t understand some of the mechanics of language from our own native language, or try to understand the cultural aspects of a nation without speaking that language?¬†It is common to criticise researchers who try to understand culture without speaking the language of that culture, however a certain group of professionals must do this, and do it often: business negotiators, travellers and expatriates.

Language is a key aspect of communication, and it has been found to dominate as a challenge in process compliance in business operations (Gray & Massimino 2014) and affect strategy setting and communication (usually originating in the language of the home country) and strategy implementation (the local response to the communication) (Luo and Shenkar 2006), however what can be more subtle and certainly confounding is when we speak the same language but the cultural differences between us change the meaning or the subtext associated with that word. Some researchers have attempted to find out if language or culture have a greater impact on understanding, with Zander, Mockaitis and Harzing  (2011) performing an investigation in to this, resulting in no significant differences between instruments that were half completed in English and half completed in their native language. This then points to a conclusion that differences in understanding results from cultural and gender differences rather than language.

In business, English is generally considered to be the “native language”, particularly in multinational corporations. Expatriates, negotiators and managers of multiple regions are often required to navigate their responsibilities and relationships with colleagues without necessarily having language training. In my own research, all interviewees reported that English was the language of the office. In some countries, this was a matter of pride for the employees. So while this allows communication to be possible between locally engaged employees and foreign colleagues, the foreign colleague needs to negotiate their position within and understanding of the local environment from an etic, or outsider perspective.

Having lived and moved through several cultures and not necessarily speaking languages of those cultures, I find that I have negotiated my own way, and been able to successfully complete a number of projects. Having said that, I know Putonghua (Mandarin) speakers from Singapore who have not been successful in China. So language, while important, is one aspect of success in navigating through cultures. I may be a language outsider, but are there other ways to be part of the in-group?


Gray, J.V. & Massimino, B., 2014, The Effect of Language Differences and National Culture on Operational Process Compliance, Production and Operations Management, pp. 1043-56.

Luo, Y. & Shenkar, O., 2006, The Multinational Corporation as a Multilingual Community: Language and Organization in a Global Context, Journal of International Business Studies, 37(3), pp. 321-39.

Zander, L., Mockaitis, A.I., Harzing, A.-W., Baldueza, J., Barner-Rasmussen, W., Barzantny, C., Canabal, A., Davila, A., Espejo, A. & Ferreira, R.F., 2011, Standardization and contextualization: A study of language and leadership across 17 countries, Journal of World Business, 46(3), pp. 296-304.