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Cracking the language barriers for exporters

Paul Horan, Director of shares his top tips to overcome language barriers for first-time exporters.


A couple of years ago, whilst on business, I was travelling on a train between Munich and Salzburg. Sitting on the seats opposite me were a German man and a French lady having a conversation in English.


Their conversation made me think. Although their use of English was not perfect it was enough for them to understand one another. Secondly, as an Englishman, like many of my fellow Britons, I would not have been able to have a meaningful conversation in German or French.


My lack of language skills puts me at a disadvantage:

Whilst English is such a wonderful language medium to use worldwide, for a one-language merchant like I am, it can put me at a distinct competitive disadvantage when exporting.


For example, if I were to bid for an OJEU export contract notice in Germany or France, almost invariably the notice would stipulate that the bid must be made in German or French. An obvious but understandable practical barrier for me.


As an exporter how could I overcome the language barrier?

I came up with the following four point plan that I wish to share and that could help you too:

  1. If I were to export to one country on a regular basis I would learn the language of that country. However, if I wanted to export to any country in the world involving a multitude of languages I needed other options.
  2. Like many other worldwide exporters and importers, I could use an online translator to get the ball rolling and the buyer would be made aware of its use. The overall aim would be to start outline contract negotiations at minimum cost. The best translators give excellent results for European languages such as French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, English and Portuguese. Results for other languages may vary. However, most business users are able to understand the main points in business proposals.
  3. Once the export ball starts rolling I may then feel the need to liaise directly through a native language speaker. Advice on this may be sought through UKTI offices situated in particular countries worldwide. This would be a good idea if contract negotiations had an excellent chance of reaching a fruitful conclusion.
  4.  Finally, I would then consider the services of a translation company to draw up commercial contracts or to provide interpreters to help with face to face contract negotiations and attend site visits.  

My four point plan has enabled me to currently trade in France, Thailand, Singapore and Finland and could assist any business to make similar export progress in any international environment.

To book an appointment for specialist advice on language barriers for export, sign up to the Business Club here.

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