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Linguistic Gaps

Linguistic Gaps

By John Powath

Communication is the language for survival. We know it in our daily life. From Trump to the local municipal satrap, their survival tool is their flexible tongues.
There are two types of communications: verbal and nonverbal. As a frequent traveller to different parts of the world, I’ve come to acquire both these skills in fairly good measure.
Expats working in multinational firms with global footprints are at ease with both these types of communication. Those who excel in such fields have a better chance to climb to the top management echelons.
I’m sure all of us will agree that communication is serious business. In spite of my exposure to many cultures and languages during travels, there are many things that I’ve noted that make me laugh.
In the globalised business environment, organisations that are serious about expanding their business abroad also recognise the need to understand the basics about different cultures, customs, values and behaviours.
Using local languages calls for circumspection. Japan’s second-largest tourist agency was mystified when it entered English-speaking markets and began receiving requests for unusual sex tours. Flabbergasted, an inquiry was conducted and the owners of Kinki Nippon Tourist Company changed its worth to change the name.
Foreign fast-food outlets have learned it the hard way. In Chinese, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “eat your fingers off.”
Recently, a little document has been circulating about “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide.” It has become essential reading for executives who live out of suitcases.
This lists phrases that are commonly – and completely – misunderstood when English and Dutch people talk to each other, reported the London Financial Times.
For example, it quoted the expression “with all due respect”. If you are British, you interpret this as a polite way to say, “I think you are wrong.” But if you are Dutch, it means, “You are listening to me!”
Similarly, “That is an original point of view”: to English ears this subtly suggests “That’s a stupid idea!” a Dutch listener thinks, “They like my ideas!” Or again, “I am sure it’s my fault” to British ears it means “It’s not my fault”; to the Dutch, it’s quite the opposite.


In this globalised world, we have to admit the fact that the English language has become the lingua franca. In spite of that cross-cultural (mis)communications happen.
In the initial years of Coca-Cola’s entry into China, its name was rendered as Ke-kou-ke-la. The phrase meant “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax,” depending on the dialect!
When General Motors launched the Chevy Nova in South America, it was apparently unaware that “no va” means “it won’t go.” It renamed it Caribe. Similarly in Brazil, Ford had to change the name Pinto as it realised that it meant “tiny male genitals”. It renamed it Corcel, which means horse.
When I went to a restaurant and looked around for the washroom, I saw this intriguing sign: Toilet out of order…… please use floor below. I could not help but laugh aloud. However, as I begin to see such signs frequently, they leave only a chuckle.
At the hotel’s laundromat, customers who are unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of the language often get scared to see signs such as this: Automatic washing machines: please remove all your clothes when the light goes out.
At a department store run by a Punjabi in London, I was amused to read the following: Bargain basement upstairs.
What I found hilarious while visiting an office were two signs that made me giggle: Would the person who took the step ladder yesterday please bring it back or further steps will be taken.
At another, this was the classic signboard that I noted: After tea break, staff should empty the teapot and stand upside down on the draining board.
Outside a second-hand shop: We exchange anything – bicycles, washing machines, etc. Why not bring your wife along and get a wonderful bargain?
Let me also share with you some of the real gems I have collected over a period of time: Notice in health food shop window: Closed due to illness. Spotted in a safari park: Elephants please stay in your car.
Seen during a conference: For anyone who has children and doesn’t know it, there is a day care on the 1st floor. Notice in a farmer’s field: The farmer allows walkers to cross the field for free, but the bull charges. On a repair shop door: We can repair anything. (Please knock hard on the door – the bell doesn’t work.
Seeing many such guffaws, I’ve this to say: ensure that your linguistic gaps are not widening. Always have a sense of humour; it takes the pain out of your travels.

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