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The Limits of Guerrilla Linguistics

The Limits of Guerrilla Linguistics

The November/December 2013 issue of Global Trade featured an article by international trade consultant John Freivalds entitled Guerrilla Linguistics: How a Small Set of Foreign Phrases Can Make a Large Impression.” In it, Freivalds takes issue with the idea that you have to know a language well to use it effectively in international business. A few well-chosen phrases will suffice.

Even if you only have a couple of days before you travel to a totally new country you can learn enough language to “make a favorable impression or improve your negotiating position.” The trick is to find one or two phrases that are commonly used in business conversations in that country, learn their pronunciation and become familiar with the contexts in which they can be used. Then look for the right moment to slip them into the conversation.

The examples Freivalds gives are entertaining and persuasive. One can just imagine the reaction of American negotiators when a Japanese counterpart, who had been speaking through an interpreter, suddenly threw out the phrase “That’s in the ballpark” at an appropriate moment.

But not everyone may find guerrilla linguistics as easy to carry out in practice as Freivalds. He was born in Latvia and, of necessity, learned to speak several languages fluently. He undoubtedly also has a well-developed international network. Many people can’t easily reach out to foreign contacts to get a suitable list of phrases. The Japanese, for example, used language coaches.

More importantly, guerrilla linguistics is aptly named because it is a “hit-and-run” tactic—one that can work well in a single encounter, but would hardly be effective in an ongoing business relationship. As one article in Workforce put it, “Although guerrilla linguistics may bring momentary success, the tactic is only temporary and probably works best for someone who has much global experience and speaks several languages.”

This doesn’t mean that you need to become fluent in another language. But, if you want to nurture good long-term business relationships abroad, you do need people with real “cultural intelligence.” Cultural intelligence has four aspects: Curiosity about and interest in other cultures; awareness of the ways in which culture can affect ideas and behavior, including your own; knowledge about the economics, geography, religion, values and norms of the particular culture; and, finally, the skills to know when and how to adapt communication style, body language and other behaviors to show respect for other cultures.


  1. Don’t jump to conclusions; wait to pass judgment on an idea until you understand the context and background of the situation.
  2. Show respect and concern in accordance with that culture’s norms.
  3. Clarify your own assumptions and expectations.
  4. Leave yourself room to adapt, compromise, change your mind.
  5. Accept that some things will be ambiguous. This is not a problem, it’s a fact of life. Clarity will come with further interaction and experience.

Myriam Siftar is the president of MTM LinguaSoft, a language service provider in Philadelphia, Pa., offering translation, localization, and cultural consulting and training.