The four major barriers to internationalization: Culture and Language

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  • March 23, 2015
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The four major barriers to internationalization: Culture and Language

According to Hamill and Gregory (1997) one of the first and most important barriers that companies face on the way to internationalization consist in the differences in natural languages and cultures.

Regarding the research of Imberti (2007), language is the greatest mediator that allows relating and understanding. Language enables the expression of emotions, to share feelings, to tell stories and to convey complex messages and knowledge. Kim and Mattila (2011) defined language as a system of conceptual symbols that allows people to communicate.

Even if language barriers are considered to be less and less important as English is becoming increasingly adopted as the standard language for business interactions, the language of the target country remains important, especially regarding marketing issues (European Commission, 2010). Language proficiency also enables access to the foreign markets (customers, competitors, authorities, etc.) and therefore helps to reduce the lack of information (Jonathan, 2013; European Commission, 2010).

Communication between people with different cultures and languages can be challenging. A culture system represents a particular way of thinking, seeing, hearing and interpreting things around. Thus words or sentences can be interpreted in different ways. With translation, the chances of mistake sometimes increase, as no language can absolutely translate another while keeping the essence of the original words intact (Jonathan, 2013).

English language is the most popular when companies are leading business abroad. It is the most widely published language, and it is spoken by the most non-native speakers (Jaster, 2008). However, to be competitive in the global market, experts consider that it takes more than the English language.

Hollensen (2011) argues that a country’s language is the key to its culture and can also be described as the mirror of the culture. In order to work widely with any culture, it is imperative to learn the language. Learning a language also means learning the culture, because the words of the language are simply developed reflecting the culture from which it derives (Hollensen, 2011; Adler and Gundersen, 2008).

“We do 50 percent of our machine tool business with companies overseas, doing business in Russia, Poland, all of the European Union, India, China, Japan, Korea, Brazil and Argentina. Cultural differences are addressed by in-country personnel who are experienced with doing business in their native country.” Brian Cluff, vice president at Star-SU (Jaster, 2008).

The system of values, culture, language and decision-making customs are often barriers for an entrepreneur attempting to negotiate or even establish contact with a foreign partner or customers. Entrepreneurs can sometimes wrongly assume that business behavior and practices are (or should) always be the same everywhere in the world (Foreign Business and Cultural Barriers, 2013). This assumption can increase the risk of mistakes and can endanger the business relations with foreign prospects.

The following case will strengthen the assertions so far.

“A company that opened a sales office in Chile more than five years ago was at a loss to explain why sales had still not taken off in this country despite all the means invested to develop the business. An analysis of the situation revealed that after five years, the sales force sent to Chile still communicated in English with Chilean customers and had made no effort to learn their language. The Chileans therefore assumed the company was not interested in forging a long-term relationship, and even though the company had set up operations in that country, it was viewed as transient” (Foreign Business and Cultural Barriers, 2013).

Cultural differences can also be a barrier as important as the language barrier is for SMEs in foreign markets. Hollensen (2011) describes the language as the mirror of the culture. Internationally, the implications are obvious: advertising must be translated; brand names must be verified for international acceptability; business negotiations must often be conducted through expensive interpreters or through the yet more expensive acquisition of a foreign translator (Hollensen, 2011). In case of business correspondence by letter or by email, the fluency is essential; persuasion and contract negotiation present enough difficulties even in a mother tongue (Harzing et al., 2011; Adler and Gundersen, 2008)

Less evident is the fact that foreign language may involve different models of thinking and different customer motivations. In such cases a good knowledge of the language will do more than to facilitate communication; it provides automatic insight into the relevant culture (Hollensen, 2011).

It can be expected that this barrier is more powerful in countries where the population is not generally proficient in the major world languages of English, French, German and Spanish (Harzing et al., 2011).

According to Kim and Mattila (2011), the obstacle of language barriers is particularly critical during intercultural service encounters where the customer and the service provider are from different cultures. For example, the reality that most service suppliers in the U.S. only speak English may greatly affect international customers. Customers may find it difficult to communicate or even get necessary information regarding products or services (Kim and Mattila, 2011; Hamill and Gregory, 1997). However, it is considered that the company’s Facebook Brand Page provides for fans an environment for communication and interaction despite any language and culture. It is also considered that this barrier can be overcome with the help of social media characteristics.


  1. Adler, N.J., Gundersen, A. (2008). International Dimensions of Organisational Behavior. Case Western Reserve University: Thomson.
  2. European Commission. (2010). Barriers to internationalisation and growth of EU’s innovative companies. Vienna. Authors: Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and Fraunhofer Institut für System-und Innovationsforschung (ISI). Retrieved July 11, 2013, from: http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/innovation/files/proinno/innovation-intelligence-study-1_en.pdf
  3. European Commission-Enterprise and Industry. (2010). Internationalisation of European SMEs, Final Report. Retrieved May 25, 2013, from: http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies /sme/market-access/files/internat
  4. Foreign Business and Cultural Barriers. 2013. Retrieved July 09, 2013, from: www.desjardins.com/en/entreprises/projets/commerceinternational/chroniques/cci50802.pdf
  5. Hamill, J., Gregory, K. (1997). Internet marketing in the internationalization of UK SMEs. Journal of Marketing Management, 13(1-3), 9-28.
  6. Harzing, A.W., Köster, K., Magner, U. (2011). Babel in business: The language barrier and its solutions in the HQ-subsidiary relationship. Journal of World Business, 46(3), 279–287.
  7. Hollensen, S. (2011). Global Marketing: A Decision-Oriented Approach (5th edition), Italy: Financial Times/ Prentice Hall.
  8. Imberti, P. (2007). Who resides behind the words? Exploring and understanding the language experience of the non-English speaking immigrant. Families in Society, 88(1), 67-73.
  9. Jaster, M. (2008). Communication Breakdown. Overcoming cultural and language barriers in the global gear market. Gear-technology, online newspaper. Retrieved July 9, 2013, from: http://www.marswell.com/pdf/geartechnology_language.pdf
  10. Jonathan, S. (2013). Language & Culture Barriers. Retrieved July 9, 2013, from: http://www.ehow.com/info_8016872_language-culture-barriers.html
  11. Kim, E.E., Mattila, A.S. (2011). The Impact of Language Barrier & Cultural Differences on Restaurant Experiences: A Grounded Theory Approach. Formal Paper Presentation. Retrieved 16 June, 2013, from: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi? article=1175 &context=gradconf_hospitality

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