Do you speak a foreign language?
A NUMBER of years ago, when NASA announced that the United States and the Soviet Union would conduct a joint mission in space, much speculation arose as to what language would be spoken during the space mission. Prior to any decision, we were told that the American astronauts were learning Russian and that the Cosmonauts were learning to speak English.
Shortly before the mission was to take place, NASA announced that after much study and deliberation, it was decided that the Americans would speak to the Russians in Russian, and, conversely, the Russians would speak English to the Americans.
I was very surprised at this decision. It seemed to me that it would be much easier for both the Russians and the Americans to speak their native tongues, rather than stumble along trying to speak a foreign language, particularly where many technical terms were involved. However. I presumed that NASA knew what it was doing when it decided that way.
Several months ago, the reason for this decision came home to me. While I was checking out of a Chicago hotel, I was forced to act as an impromptu interpreter between a hotel guest who spoke German, but not a word of English, and a hotel desk clerk who spoke no German. During my interpretation efforts, I found that even tho my German was rusty and my accent and word order were bad, the German fellow had no trouble understanding me. He even supplied many of the necessary words in order to make the thoughts comprehensible. On the other hand, when he spoke to me in German, his speed, vocabulary, grammar, etc., completely overwhelmed me, and he had to repeat everything several times, speaking more slowly and using simpler language each time.
It finally occurred to me that we all have a much easier time hearing and understanding our native language, even if it is spoken badly, with a poor accent and bad grammar, than we do speaking a foreign language.
NASA was correct. In order to be understood, you must speak the language of the listener, regardless of how poorly you speak that language. The object is to make it easy on the listener, not on the speaker.
That thought should not be lost on managers who are involved in new product development No matter what field or business we are in, be it chemistry, medicine, electronics, metallurgy, etc., we all speak a "language." To anyone in that field, that particular language is the native tongue. If that individual attempts to speak his language to someone in another field, he is, for all intents and purposes, speaking a foreign language. Whereas his listener may know a few words of "chemistry" or "metallurgy," if that is not his native tongue, the listener will be quickly overwhelmed by the jargon of the speaker.
If your language is "chemistry" and you are attempting to sell new products to a metallurgist, you will have to learn how to speak "metallurgy" in order to communicate with him effectively. You may not know all the words, and you may sometimes use them improperly, but, nevertheless, you have to learn the rudiments of the metallurgical language.
Many a good, workable new product has failed because the developers have not considered that the potential customers are in another industry that not only speaks its own language, but those customers do not know the current language of the seller. If you have a new customer in a new industry, in order to be understood, you have to speak his language; you should not expect him to learn yours.
Erwin A. Frand
© 1978. Frand & Associates Inc., Cincinnati, OH