Celebrating the use of indigenous languages in adveritising

Nelson Mandela once said, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.

The Pendoring ethunjwa ke Holland awards recognise top contributors to creative content creation in South Africa’s indigenous languages. While this includes books, music videos and social media content, much of the focus falls on indigenous language advertising.

And the creativity within this space is nothing short of remarkable, with brands increasingly demonstrating that the best use of these languages reaches beyond merely exchanging vernac words for English and plugs into deep cultural insights about the speakers of those languages.

The Pendorings celebrate the strides that advertising continues to make in demonstrating the power of Nelson Mandela’s idea that “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.

As Enver Groenewald, group chief executive of Ogilvy Africa, said at a recent Pendorings webinar, the industry is starting to recognise that “persuasive arguments depend on appeal to emotion, intellect and to the need for them [customers] to feel respected and communicated within a way that defers to their identity and sense of culture”.

However, the strides made by advertising have not been matched by the internal reality of much of SA’s business sector. English remains the “language of business”.

While it is difficult to argue that a lingua franca for business is unnecessary, it is equally true that ignoring the power of multilingualism will result in South African business missing a significant opportunity.

The UN has declared the 10 years starting in 2022 as the “International Decade of Indigenous Languages”. The declaration emphasises “indigenous peoples’ rights to freedom of expression, to an education in their mother tongue and to participation in public life using their languages” and recognises “the importance of indigenous languages to social cohesion and inclusion, cultural rights, health and justice”.

Along with Madiba’s words, this declaration should act as a spur for South Africa’s business leaders to explore multilingualism within their organisations.

Embracing South Africa’s indigenous languages can provide opportunities for real inclusion, meaningful transformation and sustainable economic growth. Rather than being an unnecessary cost, embracing our rich linguistic heritage can enable better futures for all South Africans.

Dutch academic and author of Taal is Business (Language is Business), Prof Frida Steurs, quotes a 2006 study in which multilingualism as an asset was estimated to provide added value of 35% in the French services sector.

This in a largely monolingual country! Surely all South African organisations, beneficiaries of an overtly multilingual environment, could do with a 35% boost to their bottom line?

Imagine the productivity that could be unleashed by freeing employees of the cognitive load of thinking in one language and speaking in another.

Mother tongue education has long been touted as a panacea for some of SA’s education and Early Childhood Development challenges – maybe mother tongue workplace communication could resolve a whole host of other ills?

Of course, the idea of embracing SA’s indigenous languages in the workplace is intimidating – where does an organisation start?

Deliberately recruiting multilingual employees (far easier in South Africa than in many other countries); encouraging multilingual business meetings (with someone playing the role of translator); or developing a multilingual intranet can be useful initial actions.
Ultimately businesses will start to benefit when they formally recognise the strategic need for multilingualism.

– Brauer is chief marketing officer, Hollard Insurance Group

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