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In 2022, a study confirmed that import are almost twice as likely as native-born citizens to start businesses in the United States. The American Immigration Council reported that immigrants founded 102 of that year’s Fortune 500 companies. Immigrants show a profit for risk-taking and lots of self-confidence, two traits integral to the rigors of entrepreneurship. Often, however, immigrants face the issue of fluency: they work in a language that is still new to them.
I immigrated to the United States from Iran with the goal of becoming part of the fashion industry, passionate about empowering women with the confidence to look and feel their best. I had much to overcome: no budget, health concerns, no experience in the fashion industry, and though I already spoke three languagesI didn’t yet speak English.
I could greet people and have simple conversations. I even passed my driver’s test. But knowing some basic English and launching a business were two different things. Plus, the jewelry business has specialized terms, such as jewelry types, styles and materials that aren’t commonly used in everyday English. My husband, who helped immensely as I learned English, was almost as clueless as I was when it came to terms like “freshwater pearls,” “teardrop earrings,” or “semi-precious stones.” We needed to provide specifications, measurements, lengths and convey a specific lingo denoting style and flair in our product descriptions. We were equally inexperienced in talking about these things, regardless of our language.
I made it past those rough early years. Here are a few tips on how to make it easier on yourself. Regardless of your language, if you are learning a new one to do business in, here are my recommendations.
1. Use auto-translators with caution
When I first launched Hollywood Sensation Jewelry, I didn’t have access to Google Translate. But that might have been a benefit. Auto-translators are a wonderful invention, but language is highly complex, depending on context and nuance, things that computers cannot grasp. Besides, languages do not translate word-for-word, and specialized knowledge and business jargon are tricky enough that even people who speak the language don’t always understand it.
Auto-translators are a great starting point for understanding and an easy way to say “Hello!” Or ask for directions in a new language, but do not rely on them for business purposes. I needed to write copy for my products and construct pitches for potential outlets. I didn’t want my correspondence or descriptions to have a cobbled-together, guess-what-I-mean feeling of a poor translation. That leads us to my next tip.
2. Hire help for your written communications
Writing is more formal than speech, and mistakes are far more obvious. Most people are friendly and understanding about spoken errorswhereas written errors sit on the page, inviting scrutiny and looking unprofessional.
Taking your small business out of your comfort zone and into the next level requires communication, much of it written. Writing in your second language isn’t always easy; writing well in your second language is quite a feat. Yet, as I moved my sales business to new outlets, I had to communicate succinctly and clearly.
So, any day I had an extra five dollars in the accounts, I’d commission a product description, a newsletter or a piece of correspondence. I didn’t have the luxury of hiring someone who understood my language to translate, either: back then, Iran’s internet access was filtered. I hired and trusted English speakers to grasp my meaning, relying on people who knew about jewelry to provide the correct wording. They helped me with everything from SEO-friendly product descriptions to communicating person-to-person with my business prospects.
It seems funny now, but at that time, online freelancing sites (like Upwork or Fiverr) were relatively new concepts. People thought I was crazy, hiring people in this radical way. “They’ll take your money and disappear!” they alert me. “They’ll steal your personal information!” Well, that never happened, and my advice stands. Help is available: utilize it. Now that the gig economy has normalized these kinds of contract jobs, it should be easier than ever to find an affordable assistance for your business correspondence. Hire someone to write it for you or to edit and correct what you have written yourself. Hire the best you can afford. Communication is key, and it needs to be done well.
3. Study the culture’s body language
The correct body language covers a multitude of language problems. Confident, friendly body language puts people at ease and lets them know that you’re brave, forthright and intelligent and that you are there to do business! I believe in taking advantage of the near-endless supply of information available online. On YouTube alone, countless videos explain American body language and gestures.
Don’t skip this step! Every culture has subtleties when it comes to behavior. Knowing the differences between your native and new cultures can help avoid many awkward moments. There are multiple behaviors to consider: personal space, appropriate touch, posture, gestures, facial expressions, positioning of your arms and legs, nodding and other small body movements, plus the fact that “appropriate” behavior changes between friendly encounters and formal business meetings . Most of the time, people are forgiving about misunderstood cultural differences, but if you can avoid those mistakes altogether, that’s even better.
Knowing a second language is a boon in almost any situation. Monolingual entrepreneurs are encouraged to learn more than one language because it helps their businesses and brains. Bilingual and multilingual skills, which make for beautiful mental elasticity, are valued in leadership roles. Leaders who speak multiple languages are creative, flexible thinkers who see alternate solutions to problems.
When you start a business in a second (or third, or fourth) language, you are one of a growing group of innovative entrepreneurs leading the way in our global economy. Leverage that advantage by acknowledging the complexity of language, getting help with important communications, and learning culturally correct body language. Fluency will follow soon after.