Igniting connections across the globe.

Communication Across Cultures: Working Around The World

By Chris Plunkett

Every industry has its peculiarities of language and in theatre that is especially true. Combine that with differing nationalities working together in a foreign land and you have a recipe for possible disaster.

In most places, English becomes the default language.  On one project we had a chart on the wall showing a photograph of the implement with the appropriate word used for it in Australia, Canada, the US, the UK and elsewhere. Even within the commonwealth nations, we had significant differences which led to confusion and (sometimes) hilarity. Once you mix in Malay, French, Italian, Tagalog, Cantonese and German…..well it becomes a bit of a stew.

Upon leaving the venue I’m often faced with a language challenge just performing day-to-day tasks. I believe it’s important to learn sufficient words to be polite in a foreign country and it isn’t onerous to acquire enough of a language to greet someone in the street or to say a gracious ‘thank you’ to your local grocer.

Over the years I have managed to retain a smattering of language sufficient to get myself to work, back to my hotel and eventually to the airport.

For longer or more complex transactions, short of digging in and learning the language properly, there are a variety of other tools which I can turn to.

Taxi cards are an old school way to go if there is no internet available; there are apps available for your smartphone which will show the address of a desired location in the correct script, reinforce the name with an audio clip (helpful in some places where the taxi driver may not be able to read) and usually also has a photograph as a visual aid if the endpoint is a destination like a museum or hotel. You can also buy small pocket books of taxi cards but these are becoming less common due to the plethora of phone applications.  Regardless, I like to have one handy in case of battery failure.

That’s great for getting around in a cab but for reading signs or labels or menus there are also a number of applications which will do a fair job of translation, simply by using your smartphone camera to scan the text. These apps go beyond a dictionary and are actually pretty decent translators. In some cases, they ‘learn’ with more users to improve the language flow. There is often also a ‘text to speech’ aspect which will allow you to type in a phrase and the application will speak it back out for you in a number of dialects.

And now for the translation of the future? Both Skype and Google are developing online simultaneous translation for use during calls. These beta programs will also be depending on users to assist in translation improvements over time, so try them out and check back in six months to see the developments.

None of these tools can ever replace a face to face hello in a new language and despite poor pronunciation, the effort to communicate is appreciated globally. My ‘nihao’ was replied to with ‘good morning’ on a misty day in the middle of China a few years ago. It brought a smile to both our faces, strangers no longer in a strange land.