I’ve found my calling, and that calling is to be a voice for language. Along the way I’ve discovered that language matters profoundly, whether for humanitarian aid, or for international business.
I discovered the importance of language for global business when I moved from my native Canada to France in 1986. From “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” to “If you are selling to me, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen“, in Europe I discovered that to sell to the world, you have to speak to the world in their languages, not yours. That’s why I started Lexcelera.
To sell to the world, you have to speak to the world in their languages, not yours
But in 1993, I started to become aware of another critical dimension to language. As humanitarian crises unfolded – the war in Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti, the super typhoon in the Philippines – I had the chance to see firsthand how ineffective aid can be if it’s in the wrong language. Imagine a crisis in France where instructions on how to get to safety are broadcast in German instead of French: that’s how ill-conceived humanitarian communications have been.
Taking down language barriers to humanitarian aid was the inspiration behind the founding of Translators without Borders. But today the charity has gone beyond me and out into the world. Working hand in hand with the United Nations and other organizations, Translators without Borders provides translation for crisis relief around the globe.
When communication is aid, language matters
As for me, I have come full circle. I am no longer on the front lines of language for humanitarian aid. With a new Executive Director at the helm of Translators without Borders, there are literally thousands of volunteers around the world carrying this important work forward.
My focus has evolved, but my calling is the same. While Translators without Borders works on the front lines with the international aid community – this week helping the European refugees in Arabic, Pashto and Farsi – I am increasingly engaged behind the scenes in raising awareness of why language matters.
For example, I believe the Ebola epidemic raged unchecked for so long because communications to people in West Africa were conducted in English. Raising the alarm that most people in Africa don’t speak English, contrary to popular belief, was one of the most important missions I have ever been involved in.
I feel an equal sense of passionate indignation when I see companies leave the buyers of their products and services without any support in their languages, when e-Commerce stores miss the chance of meaningfully satisfying cross-border customers because they haven’t got a handle on the language issue, when corporate intranets that are supposed to engage employees around the world end up alienating them because of language barriers.
The core issue is whether your communications are reaching people, touching people and empowering people by giving them access to information in their own language
Humanitarian aid or international business: they have more in common than you would think. The core issue is whether your communications are reaching people, touching people and empowering people by giving them access to information in their own language.
Being a voice for language seems to me a calling big enough to last my whole lifetime.