Before Craig Kovacs visits handicraft artists in small villages around the world, he memorizes a few basic greetings in the local tongues.
He also brings his own interpreter to do business with these potential suppliers.
The owner of Toronto-based importer Fair Trade and Handmade Eco Friendly Gifts over the past three years has learned that using international languages while doing business is all about balance: It shows respect, as does asking about local customs, while an interpreter makes sure the business side goes smoothly. "The devil's in the details. I don't want any surprises at the end," says Mr. Kovacs, who spends $45 to $50 an hour for a translator.
Mr. Kovacs is joining a growing segment of small-business owners who recognize the value of leveraging language. It's not about being totally fluent, to the point where you can negotiate a contract, it's about understanding how language aids a business relationship and then using it to your advantage.
Toronto's Spanish Solutions – which helps companies learn business customs, translates documents and provides live interpreters – is experiencing increased demand as people working overseas seek an edge.
"People are looking for ways to grow their businesses. Building a relationship is key in some cultures and being able to do that in the native language can be a competitive advantage," says Katharine Spehar, president of Berlitz Canada. Her company's 12 training centres across Canada are increasingly serving small-business owners.
Mando Mandarin, a New York-based online language school established in 2009, teaches adults and kids and it is witnessing rapid growth in its overall business. Founder and president Michael Cheng says the growing number of adults includes people working for large companies and entrepreneurs.
Interest is high in Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese and improved French.
The increased awareness around language has a lot to do with how much international business Canadian companies are doing. They exported $447 billion worth of goods in 2011, and imported $445 billion. While our main trading partners, the United States and Britain, present no language barriers, we also do billions in transactions with the likes of India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, Japan, Mexico and China.
"English is the predominant language of doing business internationally, and that's not going to change," says David Bhamjee, manager of small business for west and Atlantic region at Export Development Canada (EDC).
But that's not the whole story. Having some grasp of conversational Indonesian, for example, helps when dealing with manufacturers there, as does Spanish for those in the mining sector with partners in South America, and knowing a little Arabic for companies in the oil and gas industry.
Knowing local greetings, everyday sayings and popular concepts, both social and business – the idea in China of guanxi, for instance, your personal connections or network – shows respect and goes a long way toward building a trusting relationship with overseas partners. It also means there's something to talk about over a business lunch besides just business.
"Learning the language is a sign of trying to connect with them. Taking an interest in their culture and taking the time to build a relationship," says Mr. Cheng of Mando Mandarin.
Mr. Kovacs, who employs an average of two employees in quieter months and eight during the busy retail season in December, has found that to be true in his travels to small communities in Asia, South America and Africa. "Your relationship grows a lot faster when you speak some language."
Canadians, however, might be wary of blundering through new words in front of strangers and potential business allies. According to Paul Côté, owner of Brome Bird Care – a 12-year-old company with 10 staff based in Brome Lake, Que. – people in most countries appreciate it when you try using the local language, even if you make mistakes.
He manufactures his line of squirrel-proof bird feeders in China and exports them across Europe. When he says a few words of German or Italian he says he meets with a positive response. The only place he's been given a hard time is in Paris — and he's a bilingual Quebecker. "I use English as much as I can in Paris, when I'm outside of Paris in other parts of France I use French, but I use a French accent," Mr. Côté says.
His attempts to speak Mandarin have been ignored — the Chinese are so keen to learn English, people on street corners will come up to him to practice their conversational skills.
Few small-business owners seek fluency in a foreign tongue. At Berlitz Canada, the biggest demands from small-business owners are crash courses to give them a high level of competence. "They want quick results and one-on-one training for a big deal coming up," Ms. Spehar says.
A bigger vocabulary is not to assist with reading contracts, it helps you make more sophisticated small talk — and listen in on what others are saying about you and your business.
And the real work on an overseas deal might be happening in a field or factory where English is not spoken at all. "As you move along the supply chain, it's important for some players to know local languages," EDC's Mr. Bhamjee says.
On a more subtle level, understanding another language gives you real insights into the culture and a totally new way of thinking. For Igor Faletski, CEO of Vancouver-based Mobify, a five-year-old company that makes a platform to convert websites to mobile apps, knowing English, his native Russian and greetings in other languages helps him stay creative.
He'd like to pick up one of the Asian languages in the coming years because he thinks it's good for the strategic, creative side of being an entrepreneur. "It helps you attack a problem from different directions."
On a more practical level, the rising power of economies such as India and China is changing the power dynamics of our relationships with business leaders there. "The buying power has now shifted," Mr. Cheng explains. "We were the clients, now things are turning around and they are the buyers.
"That's going to impact the language we speak to each other."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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