Does your company do business in countries where multiple languages are spoken or where there may be several different “official” languages? Countries included in the group of nations that have more than one “official” language include India, Switzerland, Canada, China and Luxembourg.
If so, it is obviously very important to make sure you know your audience and provide messages to potential clients and consumers in a language that will both be understood and that your prospective audience will embrace.
Even the Indian government itself has encountered confusion in determining what language to use in the densely populated and diverse nation. This is clearly illustrated in a recent Gujarati High Court legal opinion that held that Hindi, one of the “national languages of India,” was essentially a “foreign language” to Gujaratis.
Law Requires Notices in “Main Language”
The case involved published notices of land acquisitions by the National Highways Authority of India (“NHAI”) for expansion of a national highway in the Junagrah district of Gujarat. The notices were given in newspapers in both English and Hindi, both of which are considered “official languages” of India.
These notices, however, angered a group of Gujarati farmers whose land was directly affected by the planned government acquisitions and who did not understand either Hindi or English. The farmers took the matter to court and argued that the NHAI had breached an Indian law that requires such notices to be published in the “main language” of the relevant geographic area.
In its decision, the Gujarat High Court stated that “[t]his is an admitted position that the language of the region where the petitioners are residing … the language used by them is Gujarati and the Hindi language used in the notification is foreign to them. The normal spoken language in the region is Gujarati and not Hindi. Similarly, the education imparted at the primary school-level is also Gujarati.” Accordingly, the court held that the notices provided by the NHAI were “null and void.” The court, however, refused to completely cancel the highway project on this basis.
This court decision has implications that go far beyond the mere facts of this case. It also is instructive to anyone who does business in India or any other country where multiple languages and/or dialects are spoken. It is important to note that while there are 22 different languages recognized by the Constitution of India, only Hindi and English are given special “official language” status. The Constitution provides, however, that the legislature of an Indian State may adopt any one or more of the languages in use in the State or declare that Hindi is the language to be used for any and all official purposes.
The lesson that anyone doing business in India must take from this case is that merely translating your message, regardless of the type of message, into an “official language” is insufficient. You must find out the language or dialect that is predominantly used in the area in which you are trying to communicate.