Cultural differences are a solution for saving our people and planet not a hurdle

August 22, 2023

You might have heard of the various benefits of learning a foreign language. It can open up social and professional opportunities, help with cognitive development in childhood, and even delay the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. But multilingualism isn’t just a question of individual skills: it is arguably one of the most impactful agents for cohesion in the world. In fact, the European Commission defines it as “one of eight key competences needed for personal fulfillment, a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, employability, active citizenship and social inclusion”. As such, evaluating how multilingualism can fit into your Environmental, Social and Governance strategies, could be interesting for your organisation.

It must come as no surprise that knowing multiple languages, particularly ones that are foreign to our culture, strengthens unity across cultural and national borders. Multilingualism, coupled with a multicultural awareness, pushes individuals to think beyond the scope of their own community, and to have a more global vision - a key aspect for the elaboration of a good people and planet policy.

However, when it comes to climate change and environmental crises, the language(s) employed can also reveal unexpected obstacles.

In the legal and scientific discourse of international organizations dealing with climate change, only specific languages are used. The United Nations, for example, has six official languages: English, Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. While a majority of world governments feature one of these as official languages, more than half of the world’s population does not speak these six languages. Of the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change according to the Germanwatch Institute, only one (Canada) is fully linguistically represented in the United Nations. Seven of the other nations are countries of the global south, whose wealth of languages is largely neglected on the global scene, making it all the more difficult for their populations to contribute to sustainability.

Not only is language an issue on the international political stage, it also communicates fundamentally different realities about the world. From Inuit peoples having a wide vocabulary to evoke different types of snow, to the Kuuk Thaayore language using cardinal directions to describe space (as opposed to relative references), it is clear that our experience of our environment is framed and informed by the language we use.

This raises the question: how can we even communicate a sustainable future on a global scale?

We need to turn the tables around to make language - and more broadly cultural differences - a solution rather than a hurdle.

Here are some ideas for how you can implement multilingualism in your ESG strategy.

  1. Invest in cultural awareness training. Pushing your team to think across languages and cultures they may already be intimate with, will not only help with communication in your organization. It can also prompt new ways of thinking about concepts - often in a more complex and insightful fashion. More broadly, it’ll help you reach your Diversity and Inclusion goals by establishing your organization as a beacon for cultural diversity and representation.
  2. Make the most of the linguistic diversity that already exists within your organization, particularly individuals who speak a language from the global south. As English is so widely used in business, the ability to interact with somebody in their mother tongue is generally underestimated - wrongfully. In fact, it often facilitates clearer, more genuine communication between parties. According to Nils Ringe of the London School of Economics, speaking in a language you are comfortable with (usually your mother tongue) can even neutralize the tone of an interaction, particularly important in his case study of governance in EU institutions. Taking advantage of this can therefore be a gamechanger for your communication strategies.
  3. If your business operates internationally, or in a multicultural space, consider having your content translated into the language(s) of your audience. Cultural and linguistic differences play a huge role in consumer and audience engagement. A 2021 Nimdzi research project on e-commerce showed that a majority of consumers worldwide (55%) sought out products described in their mother tongue, and were unlikely to buy from platforms and businesses whose content was in a language foreign to them. The same trend can be deduced for the procuring of services. In this vein, offering multilingual content, particularly your ESG strategy and people and planet policy, would help you reach a larger audience, and shine on the global arena.

Rather than acting as obstacles to large scale cohesion and collaboration, the wealth of languages that exist and that we interact with can provide new ideas for the elaboration of a more sustainable society. Not only would our understanding of our environments benefit from it, but the crucial role of language in culture and in societies would be enhanced. It is a mistake to regard it only as a tool: a language is a testament to the existence of an entire peoples, and is therefore as organically necessary to the preservation of ‘people and planet’ as all other aspects of your ESG strategy are.

Blog written by Communique’s own Rebeca Florez Gomez

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