Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Connecting Through Language

By Jordan Tatman

Originally I set out to write this post about the importance of language in a global business environment, and to some extent, that will still be the focus of this post. But after watching a TED lecture at the gym yesterday, I’ve chosen to broaden my perspective a bit. Instead I want to talk more about the importance of language in relation to being a globalized citizen, and in conjunction, how that plays into your role in a global business environment. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the TED series, it’s a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”. The letters TED, stand for technology, entertainment and design, and TED conferences involve speakers who give TEDTalks which are meant to spread ideas about just about anything. The TEDTalk I watched is by a man named Ethan Zuckerman who is a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and is the co-founder if an international blogging community called Global Voices. In his talk, Zuckerman looks mainly at globalization through social networks, more specifically Twitter, and how surprisingly limited our scope of the world is. He gives an especially amusing example from the 2010 FIFA World Cup when the Brazilian community on Twitter was able to play a prank on Twitter users across the globe because of the language barrier. Brazilian soccer fans began tweeting the phrase “Cala a boca Galvao!” during and after games, which eventually sparked questions from non-Brazilians on Twitter. The Brazilian users explained that the Galvao bird was an endangered bird slaughtered for its feathers, which were used in stunning hats for Carnival parades and festivities. It was said that by tweeting the phrase “Cala Boca Galvao”, you could donate 10 cents to help save the birds. If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is – there are no Galvao birds – and “Cala a boca Galvao!” means “Shut up Galvao!”, a jab at Brazil’s leading soccer commentator Galvao Bueno. Before the joke was explained articles about the Galvao bird and its plight made their way into the New York Times and El Pais, a major Spanish newspaper. In addition, the phrase made its way to the top of the 7 Global Trending topics on Twitter.

Where I’m going with this is to say, while it made for a hysterical prank, I find it shocking that there are so few non-Brazilian Portuguese speakers on Twitter (or the New York Times staff!) that this hoax could spread so far without anyone knowing the difference. As journalists, we pride ourselves in truthfulness and accuracy, so how in the world could something so silly as a fictional endangered bird slip by and make its way into the pages of the New York Times?

In another part of Zuckerman’s TEDTalk he shows a cartogram made by the head of Public Radio International that represents what countries American television newscasts covered in one sample month. 
As you can see, the majority of American television news is about America and either countries we’re allied with or countries we’re some sort of conflict with. And by and large, I think that’s really the way it is. 

Before this trip I knew very little about the Czech Republic or Belgium or the EU in general. Big EU issues make the news here, but things like the tensions between northern (Flemish) and southern  (Walloon) Belgium were news to me – and I consider myself a fairly well read and well-educated individual.  

Which brings me to my biggest question – is language the tie that binds? I can confidently say I know a good deal about US news, and a fair amount about the UK and Canada. But outside of those major English speaking countries, my scope starts to narrow.

In almost every one of our media visits the importance of learning languages was emphasized. At Hill + Knowlton there is at least one employee who speaks at least one of the official EU languages (there are 23), at Vatican Radio they broadcast in 40 languages, and Reuters is the picture of an international news agency. These three in particular, though really all of our visits, are incredible examples of global media organizations. At Vatican Radio I was amazed to hear that they broadcast mass in English to various heavily Muslim areas at the request of Catholics who would be unable to worship otherwise. While English isn’t the first language of these people typically, it’s a common language that helps them to connect with the church, a great example of language connecting people across the globe. Similarly, Reuters creates content for news outlets across the world, giving people access to news stories in countries they wouldn’t necessarily get news from on a regular basis, due to language barriers and a lack of ability on the part of their local news affiliates. And where I was really blown away was France24 – a station that broadcasts in 3 separate languages (Arabic, English and French) all at the same time. The ability to gather news in one language and report it in another is something my fairly monolingual brain has a hard time processing. While my conversational French and key phrase knowledge of Italian were enough to get around and to order food, I’m certainly not in a position to be able to do any of the sorts of things the people at these organizations do. 

I think what I’m trying to get across here is that if I learned nothing else on this trip, I now know if I want to compete in a global economy, and more importantly, if I want to consider myself a more global citizen then I need to pick up a Rosetta Stone and get to work. Language is the key to connecting with people, and connections are everything in this business. Whether you’re on the Strat Comm path or you’re into Photojournalism, we’re taught that who you know is vital to getting stories and making contacts. But more importantly, connecting with people is how we are able to tell stories, and think of how much more we could tell if we were able to connect in another language.

Click here to contact Jordan Tatman.

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