Languages are a means to an end, a journey as well as a destination

I recently wrote an op-ed for the Seattle Times about the importance and value of thinking globally. Here’s an excerpt:

Consider Starbucks. In 2003, this aspiring global company supported a mere three languages. Today, it supports 25, which may sound like a lot until you compare it to many other global brands. Among the leading global brands, the average number of languages supported is 31, a new high based on my years of research. And then there are those companies that left 30 languages behind years ago — like Facebook, which supports more than 90 languages, and Google, which supports more than a hundred.

This degree of language growth isn’t just a tech phenomenon. John Deere supports 31 languages, Ford supports 42, and even Jack Daniels is fluent in 22 languages.

So while the U.S. leaders are speaking the rhetoric of isolationism, American companies of all sizes are speaking a different language — in fact, a lot of languages.

And here’s the full article.


Think Outside the Country

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my newest book: Think Outside the Country: A Guide to Going Global and Succeeding in the Translation Economy.

This book is the result of the past decade spent working with marketing and web teams around the world. I’ve long wanted to have something I could pass along that would demystify the process of product or website globalization and provide insights into languages, cultures and countries. Such as Brazil:

Too often people get overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, not to mention bewildering lingo and acronyms such as FIGS (French, Italian, German Spanish) and L10n (localization). What I always tell people is that you don’t have to speak a half-dozen languages to succeed in this field, but you do have to know what questions to ask. Hopefully this book will help.

The book is now available through Amazon or by request from any local bookstore. You can learn more here.

PS: If you’d like to order multiple copies for your teams, quantity discounts are available. Simply contact me using this form.

Think Outside the Country: Coming April 10th


I’m pleased to announce the new book Think Outside the Country: A Guide to Going Global and Succeeding in the Translation Economy, due out on April 10th.

Think Outside the Country is isn’t strictly about taking a website or mobile app global, though you’ll find plenty of real-world examples about how to do just that. Ultimately, this book is about taking yourself global. It’s about providing an understanding of the globalization process along with country and cultural insights so you know what questions to ask when you’re asked to, say, introduce a product into a new market or launch a global marketing campaign.

This book is intended for people who want to help their organizations expand into new markets as efficiently as possible without any embarrassing or costly mistakes. And this book is about showing respect for the people who live in these markets.

You won’t speak every language, understand every culture. And that’s okay. Nobody knows everything. But we can all know a little bit about a lot. More important, we can know what questions to ask. This book will help.

You can learn more here.

And it’s now available for preorder on Amazon.

PS: We will also offer quantity discounts if you’d like to order a batch for your teams.


Celebrating the “Father of Pinyin”

I was saddened to read that “the father of Pinyin” died this weekend in Beijing (though he did live to be 111 years old). While until now I never knew very much about the man himself — who daringly criticized the Chinese government, wrote dozens of books, and was exiled during the Cultural Revolution — I was very familiar with (and grateful for) Pinyin when I began learning Chinese.

Pinyin, a romanized version of the Chinese language — which allows non-native speakers a much, much easier way to learn the language — was adopted by China in 1958, replacing the former Wade-Giles system. (Wade-Giles had been conceived by two British diplomats, and its pronunciation guide was very different and far less accurate — for example, the Wade-Giles word for Beijing is the far-less-accurate Peking.) And, as Zhou’s New York Times obituary notes:

Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.

I began to learn Chinese in the early 1990s, before moving to Asia to teach English as a second language. I began in the States with an introductory university class in which we were required to memorize characters, which was insanely difficult. In addition to that, our Chinese teacher was Taiwanese, which meant he used traditional characters as opposed to simplified characters (adopted in mainland China to increase literacy). Here is the word for beautiful in simplified Chinese:



And here is the same word in traditional Chinese:



Notice how many more strokes are required in the traditional version. Also note: There is no way for a native English speaker to tell, just by looking at either character, how to pronounce the word. This is where Pinyin comes in. If it weren’t for Pinyin — that is, if I’d had to go by Wade-Giles’ pronunciations — no one I spoke with in Taipei would’ve been able to understand a word of what I said (and it was hard enough as it was; Mandarin Chinese also has four tones for every character, and getting those wrong is all too easy for a foreigner).

Once in Taiwan, I realized I had to focus on spoken Mandarin rather than the written language — most important to survival was learning how to talk. I did have to learn a great many traditional characters, however — this was necessary for everything from eating (in places with written menus, though I ate mostly from food carts) to banking (all transactions on ATMs were in Chinese characters) to finding my way around the country (all of the road signs and bus signs were also in traditional characters).

The language was so different that I learned to “forget English,” as my Chinese tutor taught me; the only way I could grasp the language was to approach it not by translating things in my head but by thinking in Chinese. And this was fascinating…the Chinese language is beautiful, complex, and vast, and when you start to think in Chinese, it’s easier to learn the language, as each character is built from a combination of ideas. To use a simple example, here is the simplified character for the word America:



And here is the traditional character:


It is pronounced Mĕi guó, which is translated as “beautiful country” — as you can see, the first part of the character (美, mei) is from the character above, for beauty.

When I returned from Asia after two years, I was so used to thinking in another, very different, language that I found it hard to put English sentences together; I often spoke in simple sentences, as if I were translating my thoughts from Chinese back into English. It took a long time to sound like a normal native English speaker again.

I reflect on all this as my first book, Forgetting English, is released in its third edition. The title story, while fictional, has many moments — including the one with my Chinese tutor — inspired by my time in Asia.

It’s been especially enlightening to reflect on the extraordinary life of Zhou Youguang; as you’ll read in his obituary, he was so much more than the father of Pinyin. Sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, he remained an open critic of Chinese communism. His many accomplishments include overseeing the translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese, and he wrote more than 40 books (some of them banned in China), at least 10 of them published after he turned 100 — truly inspiring.


Lululemon: Global shipping is step one


Lululemon provides an interesting case study of a US-based retailer taking its first steps towards going global.

And, like all first steps, this one is rather awkward.

To be clear, Lululemon is only focused on shipping globally, which is a nice feature for English-speaking customers around the world. But I wish the website made this explicitly clear, so that web users who don’t speak English don’t waste their time with the tool highlighted below.

What I’m going to show here isn’t a conventional global gateway because Lululemon supports only an English-language website. But I would suspect that a fair number of international web users may think it will take them to a localized website. The flag, I think, is part of the problem. A user could see the flag and think that this is a global gateway he or she must navigate.

But it’s not an easy gateway to navigate — it’s frustratingly open ended. The gateway link is located well down the home page — not quite in the footer but close:


Clicking on the country name brings up the “Type Your Country” input box.

Here’s where things get interesting.

If I enter “China” I find that my country is supported. This is a fine if I’m an English speaker in China.


But what if I enter Chinese text? This is what I see:


Now one could argue that by only supporting Latin text input you’re doing a better job of managing language expectations because there is no translation of text available. Nevertheless, a basic text menu of supported countries would be a better solution than this open-ended input form — and certainly a less resource-intensive approach.

This gateway reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer plays the Moviefone guy:

On a very positive note, the website uses geolocation to guest the user’s preferred target country. Shown here is the message that a user in Germany sees:


It’s in English, naturally, so I’m not sure all users will find this approach user friendly.

But, like I said, this is a first step toward going global.

For more on taking your website global, check out Geolocation for Global Success.