Thursday, 19 June 2008

The Why and How To of Localising Presentations beyond English

This blog posting has little to do with MySQL or Sun. It's about experiences gathered while shuttling around the world as MySQL's Ambassador to Sun, but it's not about databases, it's not about operating systems, nor computer languages: it's about human languages, and how going beyond English provides a business advantage.

Let me try to grab your attention by first sharing my perhaps somewhat controversial conclusion:

English as a language of communication is much overrated. In an international setting, English may be sufficient for conveying meaning, but it has severe deficiencies when it comes to establishing a social relationship, to showing respect, to building trust, and to having fun.

For many years, I have attempted at learning how to say "thank you" and "please don't smoke" and "where is the toilet" in the local language. So I know to say "gdye tualet" in Russia, "where are the restrooms" in the US, or just a simplified "donde baños" in the Spanish speaking world.

Now, early this year, I got the assignment to travel around the Sun locations of the world. And I decided to raise my ambition level. I wanted to give a five-to-ten minute introduction to my presentation in the local language, no matter what language that may be.

The inspiration for that ambition I got from the enthusiastic reception of merely greeting the audience in the local language. In 2001, I got a rock star reception in Belgrade, Serbia -- just for saying "Dobar dan svima!" (good day to you all). Last year in Seoul, Korea, I got plentiful applause just for saying "Anyong haseo". Such enthusiasm felt a bit undeserved for two-three words, so I decided to see what would happen if I raise the bar.

Now, I've given 5-10 minute presentations in Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Czech, Turkish and Russian. As I don't really speak any of those languages, what I did was reading aloud from a script. And I'd like to share my experiences.

My recipe for delivering a presentation in a language I don't speak is this:

  1. Write the presentation in a language you know

  2. Target the message to the audience

    • say who you are, where you're from, why you're here

    • be clear on your key message, the simpler the better

    • sprinkle in some humour, but don't be too ambitious

    • make sure your text is not generic, but specific to the audience

  3. Ask a local to translate the presentation (Thanks Giuseppe for translating my original French meetup presentation to Italian! Thanks Kazumi-san for Japanese! And thanks to all Sun colleagues in Beijing, Prague, Istanbul and St Petersburg for your translation help -- without it, none of this would have happened!)

  4. If the language has an unknown or just hard to read character set, then transcribe it (I did so for Japanese, Chinese and Russian, but not for Italian, Czech or Turkish)

  5. Study by reading a page or two (spend at least 15-30 mins) on how to pronounce that language

  6. Add notes to your script, to make your pronunciation intelligible

    • Emphasis: Some languages put stress on seemingly random syllables, such as Russian -- deNOTe THOse SYLlables SOMehow

    • Tone: In some languages, tone carries meaning -- such as Chinese

  7. Add notes to your script, to make your speech enjoyable

    • denote the *words* that you want to *underline* when *speaking* (if you stress every word in the same way, your speech will be boring and monotonous)

    • denote when you want to ask the audience for questions, such as <raise your hand, wait for audience response>

  8. Practice your speech with one or more locals

    • over the phone beforehand

    • in the destination just before the presentation

    • have fun when doing it

  9. Read the presentation aloud from your paper script

    • keep eye contact

    • don't be too fast, don't be too slow

    • enjoy the audience feedback

    • have fun! enjoy!

  10. Ask how it went, afterwards

    • how many percent did the audience understand?

    • ask for honest (not just polite) feedback in private

  11. Optionally: Arrange for your speech to be recorded

The outcome from following this recipe has by far exceeded my high expectations:

  • the Italians, Japanese, Chinese, Czech, Turks, and Russians all gave me their undivided attention during all of the 5-10 minutes

  • based on informal feedback, I estimate that 80-90% of the contents of my Chinese was understood (my ambition level was "at least 70%"), with Japanese exceeding 90%, and the other languages exceeding 95%

  • a Japanese blogged about having goose bumps when listening to a gai-jin speaking (or rather pretending to speak) Japanese

  • the extroverted Chinese interrupted my speech in Beijing for about eight times, for applause

  • all audiences laughed at the intended spots (in particular where towards the end of the presentation, I self-deprecatingly said "As I'm sure you've noticed by now, I *don't* speak <language>")

  • several Turkish attendees thanked me afterwards in person, in a way that seemed even more sincere than polite (and by all means, it was polite)

  • the usually notoriously quiet Russians bombarded me with 50 minutes of questions after my presentation, and also the equally quiet Japanese had more questions than we had time

I've discussed and analysed the reasons behind this positive feedback, with colleagues at Sun. My going theory is this:

  • I show that I'm the stupid foreigner here -- common courtesy would require me to know the local language, not the locals to know a foreign language

  • going out of my comfort zone, I attract attention and show respect to the locals

  • making mistakes in the local language, I show I'm ready to invest in the relationship

  • as so few others are ready for this extra effort, the expectation level for the quality of my language skills is surprisingly low

  • the attitude I display gains trust and comfort -- and better business level interaction

I always feel strange when people apologise to me for their lack of knowledge of English. True, my command of the English language may exceed that of some taxi drivers in St Petersburg, London or New York. Yet, English is and probably will remain my third language. My native language is Swedish, and I feel more comfortable in German than in English, at least when the topic isn't strictly related to my professional life. English is also chronologically my third language, as I learned Finnish before English at school. In consequence, when I state that the official common language of MySQL is Bad English, I consider myself a case in point. And the statement seems a relief for everyone when I say it.

All in all, there's nothing wrong with English. It's a good language, like many others. But just like in biology, monoculture comes with many risks, and diversity is good. Let's celebrate it, let's enjoy it, and let's reap business benefits out of it!



  1. Bertrand Matthelié19 June 2008 at 12:26


    Nu måste jag förstås svara på *ditt* språk, det är en jätte bra blog! Det är jätte imponenrande att du pratade så många språk och jag förstår varför alla var so glad över din insats! Jag är av samma åsikt.

    Det är var my insat idag :).


  2. Aut insanit homo, aut versus facit

  3. Cliff Erickson19 June 2008 at 15:09

    Dvirpasi Megobari,
    Dzalian kargad, dzalian zaintreso, dzalian stzori. Didi madloba.


    Ja, som du kanske redan vet, har jag själv kommit underfund med att man blir uppskattad om man gör ett försök,må det vara hur anspråkslöst som helst, att tala språket dit man reser.

    Igor Tamm, nobelpristagare i fysik 1958, stal kvällen på nobelfesten genom att yttra ett 10 minters tal på svenska som han hade lärt sig utantill.

    Själv fick jag en beställning från Rauma Repola delvis genom att skåla dom på finska,och klarade tullfömaliteter i Budapest på ungerska, till vederbörande partners stora njutning.

    Men som amerikanare har jag den fördel (nackdel?) att man inte väntar att jag ska kunna något annat språk än mitt eget, och inte det en gång. Kom ihåg JFK..Ich bin ein Berliner.

    Och som du också redan vet måste man ha två olika kroppsdelar för att kunna göra detta ...ett öra för att kunna återge det riktiga uttalet och skräppon (ordagrant översatt från mitt modersmål) för att ha tillräckligt mod att våga göra det överhuvudtaget.

    Parhain terveisin,


  4. Kaj,

    Your detailed process makes it possible for anyone to understand that they can reach more people at a deeper level when they reach out in the local language. Even a brief greeting, localized slides, or a demo showing software running in the relevant locale can help boost understand as well as build goodwill. Thanks for your insights.


  5. Gut gesagt, danke! Ich weiss noch wie Du mir damals in Peking Deine Rede auf Chinesisch vorgetragen hast und ich habe Deine Aussprache bewundert. Ich glaube nicht, dass die meisten Auslaender das nach ein Paar Stunden Uebung vollbringen koennten. Wirklich toll.

  6. 0. be Kaj Arnö ;-)

    Look, it's your thing. And an excellent one at that. Wouldn't be much fun if everyone started doing it!

  7. Kaj さん、こんにちは。

    世界のみんなが Kaj さんのように他の言語や文化に対して敬意を持って接することができるようになれば、世界は真の意味で flat になると思いました。


  8. Hi Kaj,

    I think in general this works better in countries where the English fluency is low, read on...

    I used to work in Sun Localization, and I had the same thoughts as you on visiting internationally. Since I knew a bit of German anyway, I decided to try this out when giving a talk at the Munich office. I wrote just a short introduction in German, had a local review it. They listened attentively, but I got the most reaction to the last line, "Dass ist alles auf Deutsch." (That's all in German) There was a thunderous pounding of desktops! Though I didn't know it at the time, that is a European form of applause :-) At first I thought it was my German at fault, but they later assured me it was only because they wanted to hear the talk in English :-)


  9. Hej Kaj!
    Ton enthousiasme et ta curiosité pour les autres sont sans doute la clé de ce succès !
    Ce n'est pas le "simple" fait de t'exprimer dans la langue de l'autre qui te permet d'obtenir l'adhésion du public ; bien sûr son attention sera momentanément plus soutenue, aussi par respect du rare étranger qui vient parler la langue du pays qui l'accueille. Je suis cependant convaincue que le succès que tu rencontres en te prêtant à cet exercice est dû à ton ouverture d'esprit, la générosité et la curiosité dont tu fais toujours preuve. Je crois que les gens reçoivent de prime abord l'attitude avant le discours.
    Merci de nous faire partager ta riche expérience et pour cet éclairage quand même, merci à l'anglais, si international!

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