Multilingual Business as a Driver for Cultural Change

As 2013 settles in, parents are preparing their children for the impending school year, and the collective sigh is almost audible as businesses prepare to face the challenges of 2013. Will it be different this year? Early in 2012 the status of Afrikaans as an official language came under threat. A little later outraged parents made headlines, throwing the spotlight on a few schools who decided to replace Zulu with Afrikaans as an additional first language. But, in a country with eleven official languages, it’s to be expected that there’ll always be some commotion around the languages we use.

Still, it’s 2014. Despite any grievances we may have with government departments or anyone else, society is moving forward. The number of individuals with more disposable income is increasing, as is the common channel used to exchange information.

In November 2011, Spanish fashion heavyweight Zara opened its doors in Johannesburg to an auspicious public reception. According to Victor Herrero, representative of parent company Inditex, South Africa “is a country with a very significant potential for us.” Especially, he added, because “there are 50 million people, and a middle class that’s growing.” Although poverty is still a crisis locally, it might be anticipated that our local situation is righting itself slowly but surely. And if Zara’s arrival isn’t evidence enough, Wallmart’s recent acquisition of South African company Massmart should evince that even American businesses are spotting potential for growth in Africa.

So what’s keeping South African businesses from breaking down language barriers and bridging cultural divides? Budget is perhaps one of the most anticipated hurdles keeping small and medium enterprises from getting new audiences over the threshold. But with the proliferation of digital devices – more than 100% mobile penetration, and smartphone adoption in excess of 10 million in 2012 – reaching out to new audiences has become easier than ever before with technologies like USSD, and mobile-ready websites.

However, setting up shop on a mobi website or offering text-based mobile menus (USSD) won’t be enough on their own. Catering for audiences in their own language – especially in the context of post-apartheid South Africa where there is an inherent focus on personal identity and history – will augur increased profitability for those businesses that go the extra mile. And when they do and succeed, others will too, since audience expectations set the bar as business submits to its demands.

Of course, creating channels based on all eleven official languages might not be feasible. In this case government’s proposed solution might be best: cater for the audiences in the region. Although the end result will be hard to predict, it’s possible to look to a future where language insecurities are subdued in an environment that promises profitability and growth potential, both economically and socially, irrespective of your native tongue.

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