Your multilingual audience: obstacle or opportunity?

Your multilingual audience: obstacle or opportunity?

By: Dr. Jill Bishop, Founder & President of Multilingual Connections

Whether your business is trying to reach a local, national or global market, language has never been a more important consideration than it is today.  Over 60 million people in the US speak a language other than English at home and, in Illinois, the most commonly spoken languages include Spanish, Polish, Chinese (both Cantonese and Mandarin), Tagalog, German, Korean, Arabic, Urdu, Russian, Italian, Gujarati, Greek and Hindi.  For those interested in zooming in by neighborhood, check out this great resource that provides census data for each Chicago neighborhood.

Just because people speak another language at home doesn’t mean that they don’t speak English also – but it’s worth keeping in mind that their language of comfort, whether for reading and writing or for listening and speaking, may be their native language.  There are also cultural considerations to keep in mind even with those who are strong English-speakers.

So where does that leave you as a business? Don’t think of language as a barrier; think of it as an opportunity!  Some suggestions:

  1. Know your audience.  Meet representatives of these communities and find out about their language and cultural needs.
  2. Learn a little bit of their language.  You don’t have to be fluent, but learning a few phrases for greetings and politeness can go a long way.  There are great online resources, but for those that want learn a language in a social setting, Chicago is full of great language schools.
  3. Learn a little bit about their culture.  What may seem commonsense to you is likely a learned cultural behavior.  While you may like to get right down to business, for example, others might prefer to establish rapport and trust
    before turning the conversation to business. 
  4. If you’re going to translate your website or marketing materials, make sure you use a professional.  Just because someone speaks a language does not mean they’re a good translator, and professionals only translate into their native language.  Resist the temptation to use an employee or the retired high school Spanish teacher that lives next door – and while online machine translation is great in a pinch, it’s never acceptable for external audiences.  Translation is a skill learned and honed over many years, and even the best translators aren’t always perfect; therefore, anything translated for a wide audience should also be edited by a second translator, and then proofread and formatted before printing or posting.


Reaching out to a multilingual audience can be intimidating, but you don’t have to do it alone.  Consider contacting the various language service providers that are members of the SBAC and see how they can help!




Dr. Jill Kushner Bishop is Founder & President of Multilingual Connections, a woman-certified translation agency and language school in West Bucktown that helps connect individuals and organizations with their communities and world.  Multilingual Connections provides translation, transcription and interpretation services in over 75 languages and classes and tutoring for adults, kids and corporations in over a dozen languages.