Bridging the Language Gap at TEDxNIU

I was invited to speak at the TEDxNIU Annual Conference at Northern Illinois University on April 22, 2017. There were more than 200 attendees from various backgrounds, including students, professors, academic staff, and business professionals.

TED is a nonprofit devoted to sharing ideas, usually in the form of short talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment, and design converged. Today, the TED program covers almost all topics—from science to business to global issues—in more than 100 languages. In the spirit of TED’s mission (“ideas worth spreading”), the independently run TEDx program helps communities, organizations, and individuals produce TED-style events at the local level.

This year, the TEDxNIU conference consisted of eight speakers from various professions, including computer science, cancer research, personal branding, and entrepreneurship. The theme was “Pushing Limits,” and speakers were asked to discuss how pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones helped them reach their goals. The conference organizers invited me to speak because they wanted a topic relating to globalization, in particular the challenges associated with working through language barriers. They thought that having someone who is both a translator and interpreter speak would be a good way to address many questions concerning the importance of bridging language barriers when it comes to business and personal matters. The title of my talk was “Hobgoblins and Coca-Cola: Beyond the Language Barrier.”

How Do Globalization and Localization Relate?

I began by explaining that globalization and localization are commonly considered to be poles apart, but they effectively go hand in hand with every overseas business venture. When a company decides to market its brand or expand its operations in a foreign market, it’s contributing to globalization. However, to be successful overseas, I stressed that a business has to shape itself according to the norms and needs of the host country, which is where localization comes into play. The aim of localization is to give a product the look and feel of having been created specifically for a target market, no matter the language, culture, or location. This might include:

  • Adapting graphics to target markets;
  • Modifying content to suit the tastes and consumption habits of other markets;
  • Adapting design and layout to display translated text properly;
  • Converting currencies and units of measure to local requirements;
  • Using proper local formats for dates, addresses, and phone numbers; and
  • Addressing local regulations and legal requirements.

To localize a brand so that it’s specifically tailored to the target country, the translation of the promotional content holds the key. I stressed that many factors needed to be considered for a translation to provide the desired results.

Importance of Understanding the Target Culture

When a business decides to export its services internationally, it doesn’t matter how confident it is in its product, business plan, capital investment, and human resources. If a business fails to localize its message, the brand will never gain enough traction. Brand success in international markets is achieved by establishing a connection with the audience on an emotional level by transcreating the brand’s message. Transcreation addresses the challenges involved in adapting marketing messages successfully. For instance, will your message resonate with target consumers? Rather than just translating words, it’s essential to address cultural differences and adapt the tone of voice and visual language to each local market. Ultimately, reviewing the target market’s attitudes, aspirations, and other psychographics will help enhance the appeal of the message or product. To circumvent cultural and language barriers associated with this process, I explained that companies often hire translators and localization experts to ensure that the new market understands the company’s underlying vision correctly.

What Does It Mean to “Bridge the Language Gap”?

I decided that attendees might have an easier time grasping the importance of the concepts I was trying to explain by relating a little bit about my own struggles with language and then tying this in with the idea of adapting your message to the needs of another culture.

I’m Middle Eastern, originally from Iraq. I grew up speaking Arabic at home. When I was four, my family moved to Prague, Czech Republic, as my parents were fulfilling their assignments as diplomats. We moved again when I was six from Prague to London, England. I only spoke Arabic and Czech, so it was a challenge for me to communicate with the other children at school. To help me overcome the language barrier I was facing, my teacher started sending me as a messenger between my classroom and the classroom across the hall. She would ask me to convey verbal messages or involve me in an activity (e.g., “Please go to Mrs. Johnson’s class and bring her these books and ask her if she can lend us a book for our circle time.”) At first, I just memorized what she was telling me to say. I literally didn’t understand a word. As I interacted more with the teachers and the other children, things slowly started to make sense and I began relating to my surroundings.

In other words, my teacher helped me adapt by establishing a connection. Now, every time I hear the phrase “bridging the gap,” I remember my experience running back and forth across the hall conveying messages between the two classrooms.

I then explained that just as my teacher had made a connection with me to “bridge” our two cultures, businesses should also make the same effort to establish a connection with their intended consumers on a cultural level. In other words, localization is not just about learning the language in question, but gaining a sense of the surroundings in which you operate and developing an emotional connection to the place and the culture of that environment.

Want to Reach a Foreign Market? Do Your Research

Global corporate giants who have precariously navigated the lingual landmines of foreign markets without proper care have found themselves in the center of public criticism from time to time. A poorly worded document or a mistranslated slogan can derail a sales campaign before it even starts. For example, when Nokia introduced their new brand of smartphone, the Lumia, to Spanish-speaking countries a few years ago, the company did so without checking to see if the name it had chosen for the product had an equivalent meaning in the target market. It turns out that lumia means “prostitute” in a gypsy-influenced Spanish dialect, which is obviously not a word the company wanted to have associated with its flagship product. Unfortunately, this realization came too late for Nokia, and the company ended up facing considerable backlash for this error.

On the other hand, a successful marketing technique that the Coca-Cola Company utilized in 2014 to market their product through the “Share a Coke” campaign was to transcreate the brand’s message and localize it to local markets. A marketing campaign encouraged consumers to purchase Coke bottles and cans personalized with their names and with the names of friends and family members on them. The campaign capitalized on the global trend of self-expression and sharing, but in an emotional way. The results were tremendous (

  • #shareacoke a No. 1 global trending topic on social media.
  • 998 million impressions on Twitter
  • 2% increase in soft-drink sales, increasing Coke consumption from 1.7 to 1.9 billion servings per day.

Bottom line: do your research!

I explained that these examples showcase the inherent challenge of entering foreign markets. Aside from flaws arising from literal translations, the culture of the intended region must be scrutinized closely to establish a deep connection with the intended audience. Cultural awareness is crucial to avoid misunderstanding or offending people.

It’s Not About the “What” but the “how”

I concluded my talk by quoting a story told by Tommy Weir, the author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East:

“You travel abroad for the first time and decide to buy a Coca-Cola drink. Before this experience, your assumption was that Coke was the same all over the world. Every advertisement you’ve seen consistently shows Coca-Cola’s trademark red color and the bottle’s contents to be dark caramel, giving the impression that Coke’s ingredients are the same everywhere. Now you discover something new about the famed Coke drink: the taste varies greatly from one region to another. In other words, the ‘what’ of Coke is the same wherever you live—a soft drink to quench thirst, but ‘how’ it tastes varies by region to match local tastes.”

So, it’s not about the “what” of things, it’s about the “how”! In other words, for a business to succeed in a foreign market, it will have to adapt its message in a way that is culturally appropriate to the market it’s trying to reach. This is key to getting people to connect with your product or service.

Making an Impression

After the conclusion of the talk and during a networking break, a large number of attendees lined up for questions. First, 100% gave positive feedback, telling me they enjoyed the talk very much. Many said they found it “eye-opening” and very beneficial. My topic resonated with quite a few attendees, particularly international students. Perhaps the best news of all is that the members of the university’s business faculty are considering incorporating the material from my talk with their marketing classes next year!

Ghada Shakir is an Arabic<>English translator, localizer, and interpreter, she is the president of Gingkos Inc. Translations, Localization and Culture, a language company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She also serves as a director of the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters (an ATA chapter). She has a master’s degree in computer science from Eastern Michigan University and a BA in translation and interpreting studies from Al-Mustansiriyah University, Baghdad, Iraq. She will begin her term as the assistant administrator of ATA’s Arabic Language Division at the end of October. Contact:


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