• Mariana Roccia

Language and cultural barriers when trading in Latin America and how to overcome them

When it comes to international commerce, language is crucial for ensuring that business is done properly and relationships flourish. During the past few years, Latin America has become a promising region for UK companies seeking to expand their businesses. This blog will look at some of the challenges companies face when it comes to language and will introduce some suggestions to overcome them.


The Latin American market has increasingly become a target for UK businesses seeking to look for other opportunities outside Europe. Over the past ten years, the British government has taken a keen interest in raising the region’s visibility as part of their strategy of global engagement. However, language and cultural barriers can play a significant role in strengthening those relationships.


Latin American culture at a glance

American journalist Brin- Jonathan Butler once said that “while guidebooks might tell you that time collapsed here, another theory says that in Latin America, all of history coexists at once.” Perhaps this is why the perception of time may be different in this part of the world: delays and bureaucracy are a daily battle, which can be extremely frustrating for the European way of doing business.


Patience and learning to handle frustration are key for doing business in the region. So, take deep breaths if your meeting was scheduled to start at 9.00 but stakeholders arrive 40 minutes later, give you a cheerful hug and a kiss on the cheek (pre-pandemic, of course). Relax, this is also part of the culture.


Seniority and ranks are highly respected across countries. However, the professional settings also have a lot of personal, in other words, Latin Americans can be big fans of mixing the boundaries: don’t be surprised if you receive a sudden invitation to someone’s birthday party or if you are asked to join a football game. Developing relationships is the backbone of doing effective business in Latin America, so do engage in social activities when invited.


Main language challenges

With over 500 million users around the world and 400 million speakers in Latin America alone, Spanish is the most spoken language of the region followed by Portuguese with just over 200 million speakers. Featured as the UK’s top priority language post-Brexit, Spanish is the official language in 19 countries in the Americas.


As for English, the 2019 EF English Proficiency Index for Latin America shows an average of 50. 34 % with an increase in their adult English proficiency in 12 of the 19 countries. Despite the local governments’ efforts to make English a compulsory subject at schools, access to English language education is highly unequal, particularly when it comes to rural and urban areas.


The disparity between the demand of high-skilled professionals with strong language proficiency and the reportedly insufficient English language provision given by the local schools, often pushes graduates to pay for private English classes to meet the industry standards.


Although Spanish is widely spoken in the region, this can give a false sense of linguistic homogeneity since there are significant dialectal variations across and within the countries. Therefore, it is crucial for businesses looking to establish their brand in the region to have a deep understanding of nuances in the local culture and language.


Here are some suggestions that will help you streamline the processes and reduce the linguistic challenges:


1. Do the research and visit the country (if possible)

Taking the time to research the country’s specifics and your potential partners is perhaps the obvious step if you are serious about establishing your business there. Visiting the country will give you the first-hand experience of what the local culture is about, but of course, travelling may not be feasible or even advisable due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


However, there other ways in which you can build trust and network. If travelling is not an option, engaging with UK businesses that already have a presence in the region is a great place to start.


2. Network and find local partners

Finding the right local partners will be crucial for establishing long-lasting relationships in the country and ensuring a smooth international transition. The Department for International Trade, The British Chambers of Commerce and trade associations can provide invaluable advice to help you find a suitable local agent for your business. They can also give you useful insights on the local legislation and the legal frameworks for setting up your business and ensuring their compliance.


3. Learn the language

Having a basic command of the local language and a few conversational phrases will certainly help in breaking the ice and making meaningful connections with stakeholders. This will show your genuine and long-term commitment in the project and people will surely appreciate the effort- even if it is not perfect.


4. Monitor your language delivery

During face-to-face interactions or videoconferencing, it is best to use plain language and rely on visual aids when possible. Also, remember that roles and positions do not always translate well into the local language, so be ready to explain.

As the old proverb goes “If you are a fast talker at least think slowly.” This is particularly important in multilingual environments where messages need to be accurately conveyed and deadlines are tight due to teams working across time zones. Since you will communicating to an international audience, avoid using obscure cultural references or jargon.


According to neuroscience research, the human brain can only consciously digest 4 to 6 pieces of information at the time. So, plan what you are going to say carefully and check whether listeners are following you speak. Even if your audience has a good level of English, ask questions regularly to check their understanding without being patronising.

5. Think about your brand content and adapt it to the local market

Did you know that approximately 65% of the consumers prefer content in their native language and that 40% won’t buy in other languages? Translating your company materials will be a crucial step for ensuring that your brand content has a local market presence.


Before investing your time and money, plan carefully the type of content that you will need in Spanish. For instance, will all your corporate materials be available in Spanish? Are you planning to write blogs specifically for this new business venture? Will the company have a social media presence in the target culture?


Regardless of the type of content, you will need to thoroughly inspect your communications and decide how flexible you are willing to be when it comes to localising them. This may be daunting at the beginning, but it will significantly reduce decision-making fatigue in the long term and give you a clearer idea of the kind of language solutions your business may need.


At M.R. Language Services I understand the importance of effective communication in your business. I can help you and your company reach the Latin American market by ensuring that all your communications are carefully translated and localised.

Let’s discuss your project today.


Mariana Roccia is a certified translator and language teacher working between English and Spanish. Her specialisms are law, business, and academia. She holds an MA in Linguistics and an MA in Environmental Humanities. In addition to working as a translator, she is also involved in language research and regularly presents her findings in the field to the industry. She co-convenes the International Ecolinguistics Association, a network of over 1,200 researchers around the world, and is the Co-Editor of the book series Bloomsbury Advances in Ecolinguistics. She is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL), Member of the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL) and Committee Member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting’s Western Regional Group. Keep in touch with Mariana on LinkedIn, Facebook and Academia.edu.