Flexible language for food labels.

In a recent health food conference, Anne Heughan, Director of External Affairs at Unilever, claimed that labels on food should not just be a list of ingredients. She felt that some thought had to be put into the wording of these labels, taking into account the linguistic culture of the target country. As an example she quoted England and Germany, she said that while in Germany consumers prefer technical information in England consumers would prefer the information about the product described in a more emotional way.

While it´s easy to understand how many people would find it difficult to find an emotional way of describing a recipe of aspartame, E-numbers, mixed in with some vegetables and potatoes, there is an important message here: “localization. localization, localization.”

Wikipedia, the dictionary-lazy-person-bible to everything, defines language localization as: “the process of translating a product into different languages or adapting a language for a specific country or region.” In our day and age, knowing a language or being able to speak a language to a certain standard is very important. However, to be able to use it in a professional environment people will need to know also the culture and cultural nuances linked to that language.

Culture is something that is not really that easy to get in a foreign language class once or twice a week. To learn culture you need to live it and breathe it, day in, day out. Some teachers are fantastic at inspiring young students and pass culture on. However, MFL in the UK is not a priority subject. There are many schools where it’s not compulsory and MFL teaching jobs are scarce. It is not infrequent for MFL teachers to teach up to three languages. Are they gifted and multilingual? Far from it. Don’t misunderstand me, of course, some of them surely are. Most of them end up teaching their main degree language, a second language that they picked up along the way, maybe they did it for a year or two. But more and more MFL teachers are made to teach a third language that either they don´t know at all, they struggle through a summer intensive course in Spanish, or they did at school about 20 or 30 years ago. And when it comes to language for primary schools, well, most primary school teachers don´t speak any foreign language and have sweaty nightmares when thinking about having to teach something that they probably hated themselves in school. Some primary schools do buy in specialist language teachers from outside. However one or two sessions a week with a French teacher learning colours and days of the week in French hardly represents what I´d call immersion in the culture or the language.

All of this takes me back to my original point “localization”. Speaking and understanding the language and the culture. Being in a bilingual family I intend to bring up my daughter bilingual. I will not learn the language but acquire it, through daily immersion in the language, by talking to her Spanish family and taking part in as many holidays abroad and Spanish speaking activities locally as she can. I am not French and I speak French with a foreign accent, however for me the choice is clear. I don’t want my daughter to be completely fluent at saying the colours and days of the week, or talking about GCSE topics. I want her to speak to children her age in French, about life and games, with a strong accent if you will. The aim is called communication, with or without accent. By learning to speak a foreign language in early life, children will also be exposed to the culture. Let’s take French as an example, children would be able to watch French movies and absorb the cultural connotations and sub-meanings. They will be able to converse with other children their age in that language, thus acquiring new vocabulary, learning the social non-written rules, and being exposed to the “right” accent (for those who do worry about accents).
If we talk about personal fulfillment, I think the fact of being able to communicate with others and enjoy literature and cinema in that language will be enough for a lot of people. However, some people may also want to achieve professional fulfillment. In this respect, think about 20 years in the future. The EU, UN, multinational companies, etc will be needing people who speak several languages and understand the culture. Those people who have been brought up speaking at least 2 languages at home will have the upper hand. They will understand not just the language but the cultural nuances.
Does this mean that people who study GCSEs and A levels now won’t have a chance in the future? No, of course not. If they love languages they will keep at it and spend years after school improving that language to get to near native level. This is very hard work, as I am sure many of the people reading this know, because you are either bilingual yourself or you know somebody who is, and has had to learn the second language.
By the Principle of Least Effort, why would you want to go through the struggle of years of studying and learning, when you can acquire the language from a tender age? I know I wouldn’t.
For those parents who do speak a foreign language fluently because they, themselves, went through the verb ending learning process, the choice, in my opinion, should be clear. Don´t worry about accent, teachers in school will probably also have the same type of accent as you do, or worse if it´s their third language. Don´t worry so much about grammar and saying things wrong, think that your kid is getting much more immersion speaking it at home and using it for real interaction, than at school learning about holidays and school uniform. If you worry about grammar and vocabulary reading children´s books and watching the news will also be a good revision for you. Also, think that if your kid can hold a conversation with native people in that language, it means s/he is getting the message across. (By the way, saying the numbers and pointing at stuff that you want to buy doesn’t really count).
Finally, if we want our children to compete in the world of the future, of being those people who will be able to market products to foreign countries, to use the right lingo, the right nuances, to know that Germans like their food technical and the English prefer it pretty, let´s pass our knowledge down the generations.

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