Creativity Without Borders

Innovation from East and West

English as a Creative Adventure

When language mistakes generate insight

If ever we worry that our high-tech world will overpower our high touch needs, we should remember that in Vietnam, electronic mail is “two computers massaging each other.”

I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam, for several years when my colleagues were just beginning to learn English. Although I have some language skills—I speak German, can keep up somewhat in French, studied (and have forgotten) Japanese—Vietnamese is beyond me. When I reached the lesson where I learned that two words just a smidgeon different from each other could mean “chapel” or “brothel,” I gave up. Just how would it look to some Vietnamese early on a Sunday morning if a straight-looking American female professor asked for a house of ill repute?  

 

Church or something else? Church!

So I look to my colleagues with awe and amazement as they speak their own form of English. And the results, while sometimes funny, are always charming, and often enlightening. If a few cases, I’ve simply adopted the Vietnam-English phrases because they make more sense. 

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For instance, business lingo in America might benefit from the twists of English that give shape to the forms of business entities. In Vietnam, the “regal framework” outlines the business structure of a company and, in some ways, pointedly reflects how we in America sometimes feel as the regulations and legalities come across as being imperial, where we have little say. 

When the “regal structure” sets up “join-ventures,” that may better capture the intended nature of joint ventures, with its aim of real collaboration.  Those firms then must decide upon internal structures, with options of being “flattering” or “tall and fat,” which, I’d say, about sums up most of our approaches to hierarchy. Instead of a human resource department, why not a “human rescue department?” The human rescue department can show a caring attitude toward new employees, who are “deeply interviewed” during recruitment, conveying a sense that the firm and its human rescue employees worry about finding a good match. Finally, the human rescue department in Vietnam also hints at some of the potential for tension in training activities, where employees learn new skills and knowledge in a “training bowl.”

Indeed, English from the mouths of new learners should bring a spring to the step and smile to the face of any jaded native English speaking manager. How can one not want to be in a place where “management from the seat of my bicycle” dominates, where it's possible to find “gold opportunities,” where the “level of backward is different from other fields,” and where a firm has “decided to delight any customer?”

And finally, anyone who needs a polite way to get rid of a nagging colleague, customer or billing firm might use this approach:  

Hello?

   “Hello, this is Joe.”

   “Sorry, Joe is not here.”

   “No, this IS Joe.”

   “Sorry, Joe is still not here.”

 

Now, forgive me as I move on to my next "death line," deadline for those in the U.S.

 

Copyright Nancy K. Napier

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D., is Professor of Strategy and International Business at Boise State University.

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