In the public and private sectors language services are more often than not housed in the communication or human resources departments. This can cause problems for especially municipalities which traditionally service the needs of people from a variety of backgrounds, writes Zama Bekeweni, Executive Director: Multilingualism SA. Language barriers can cause problems for municipalities which traditionally service the needs of people from a variety of backgrounds.

Is it perhaps a ‘chicken and egg’ situation? A question of which is more important than the other in business interaction? In fact, which of the two enables the other? From which of the two does business derive benefit? Let’s explore these.

The chicken and egg debate seeks to establish which of the two existed before the other and which begot the other. An argument can be made in favour of both but with no conclusive answer. Furthermore, the very phrase ‘chicken and egg’, on face value, may create the impression that the chicken existed before the egg and actually begot the egg and is therefore the essence of that particular life.I have experienced a similar debate around communication and language—in fact, around communication practice and language practice. Which is more important than the other? Or better still, which enables the other, and ultimately from which of the two does business derive benefit? Cases are made in favour of the one or against the other but with no conclusive answer. Let us for a moment agree that communication happens through language; be it spoken, written, verbal or non-verbal. Let us further agree that sound public relations are dependent on sound communication practice. If the thesis: communication happens through language is correct, then communication is dependent on language which is elsewhere described as a system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other. What a daring statement to make.

It is daring in that the very purpose of public relations and communication practice is to express thoughts and feelings with the view of changing perception and/or behaviour. All this happens through language.It is my observation that, both in the public and private sectors language services are more often than not housed in either the communication department or human resources department. Language practice, which includes the various forms of interpreting, translation and language editing, is not seen as a discipline worth recognition as such. This is despite language practice in the form of translation studies and other sub-disciplines being catered for in some of our universities.

This non-recognition is also exacerbated by the seeming inaction on the part of language professionals or practitioners, if you may. There is no vigorous attempt at making the profession visible and noticeable. Government should, however, be commended for enacting the South African Language Practitioner’s Council Act, a piece of legislation which is intended to protect and promote language practice in the country. This exercise should go a long way towards elevating the status of language workers in our country simultaneously, inviting appreciation for the work they do. This should then crystalise the value and significance of language in the process of imparting and sharing information, especially in business interaction. Shall we say that language happens through communication? I doubt that, but I am certain that language enables communication. This then brings us to a point where we have to explore what precisely makes a communication event effective. To do so we have to see effective communication as an event characterised by the clear and successful delivery of a message; the communication process. Of course, the message has to be understood by both the sender and the receiver. This understanding can only come about through language; oral, written or signed. If the language is not understood, then the communication becomes meaningless.

I, therefore, argue that communication and language, whether the one depends on the other or not should coexist and be regarded as equals in the process of imparting information. Customer retention, reaching out to new markets and obtaining endorsement or recognition as business are largely dependent on how a business articulates its brand essence through language in its communication process. That’s the value of language in business interaction.


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