Perspectives: Reverse immersion

Earlier this year I was on a three-month assignment in China. One day during rush hour, I rode in a packed Shanghai subway train on the way to dinner with a visiting German friend. There was a wall of people six or seven deep between us and the door.  

As I signaled to the friend, she gave me a look meaning, “are you sure we can get off this train?” When the train was coming to a stop, I yelled out, “xiàche-!” We wiggled and nudged and worked our way through. Just as we quietly celebrated our impending exit as the door opened, a man rushed me trying to enter the train before anyone could get off. Instinctively, I stiff-armed and brushed him aside. Without emotion, he went around me into the train. When we walked to the restaurant, the friend, who has good knowledge of the Chinese language, remarked, “I see, so they say xiàche- here.” It made me think for a moment. Xiàche- means “getting off the train.” However, it was a phrase I had adopted only a month before. Being born in Taiwan, and being fluent in Mandarin, I would normally use the much less assertive “Excuse me, could I pass, please.” Then I felt obliged to explain to my friend that back home in California, the stiff-arming was not part of my behavior. I did in the train what many locals would do. It was all part of social choreography, not confrontation.

I was in China for business reasons, but on the side, what I also picked up was cultural and language immersion — yes, even for a native speaker. I’ve lived in Germany and Italy as a language school student, so I know well the tremendous benefit of immersion. Having lived away from Asia since my childhood, I still have acute interest in and intimate knowledge of Chinese culture and history, but this immersion experience was both surprising and enlightening.

There were many opportunities for learning. I started to learn the Shanghainese dialect, which was quite a revelation; I discovered that it is different from Mandarin beyond just the pronunciation. Even for Mandarin, I was often surprised by the evolving vocabulary of modern China. This is certainly the case in technology, where many terms are translated very literally from English. I also wanted to pay attention to how software is used, and what software people use. WeChat, the country’s most popular social network app, was introduced to me on day one, for no other reason than people preferring it to text messaging, which, unlike in the United States, is typically not free in phone plans. Additionally, I got a first-hand look at how people handle inputting Chinese characters, which is a more time-consuming process than English. It was interesting to see a myriad of adaptations and innovations used to reduce the amount of typing. Overall, I was surprised by how much I would not have learned had I not spent the three months in China. The regional insights I gained as a by-product of my assignment helped to shape the design details of a Chinese localization project completed after I returned to San Diego.

The advantages of overseas immersion experiences for language students are well documented. Students don’t just improve their foreign language skills; they also learn and experience local customs, culture and ways of life. Likewise, for localization projects, having key team members immersed in the target country would help in the fine-tuning of localization issues. Of course, for many reasons, this would not be practical. So, I’d like us to consider the notion of reverse immersion.

The idea is to bring a person from the target country or culture to the localization project, and colocate and embed her with the team. This person, whom I’d call the reverse immersion specialist (RIS), should be more than just a native speaker, she should be someone who has lived in that country recently, and understands both traditional and pop cultures well. Her role is not as a translator, but as an advisor in three areas: language, culture and trends. The language aspect is obvious. What are the intricacies of the language in different, often edge-case contexts? Is the use of language sufficiently modern? Does a word have dual meanings that could reflect negatively on the company? What optimal keywords do we use when searching for certain information online? Language use evolves over time, and the evolution is faster in the internet age. This is the case for both trade terminology and colloquialism.

As for culture, the RIS would be a good reference person to assist with cultural nuances such as color, symbolism, preferences, taboos, and national and regional ethos. If the RIS doesn’t have the answer, she could conduct structured and repeatable research.

Thirdly, advising on trends is valuable, potentially more valuable than culture and language. Is multilingualism prevalent in Malaysian mobile apps? What online shopping site is most popular in Russia? What’s the preeminent crowd-sourced business review app in Germany? Do Chinese users mostly type or hand-write on the smart phone? Do all popular location services work in Turkey? Which input methods editor is preferred on PCs in Japan? Are online payment options in Brazil the same as in the United States? These types of questions often have a technical impact on product development and localization. An on-site RIS is better than anyone else to advise on these items.

Internship is a probable route for the RIS. If the RIS cannot be available for the duration of the entire project, I’d put her in the middle of the project, having a good intersection of testing and the development phase, and embed her in both the testing and development teams. Colocation of the RIS is an important benefit, as this allows ad hoc discovery of localization issues, especially inconspicuous ones. Learning to test the product would give an RIS the domain context and depth of product knowledge. Critiquing translation, user interface and functionality promotes discourse on localization improvement. Moreover, I’d ask her to run workshops introducing culture and trends of the target language/nation to the localization team. The RIS’s tenure can be easily filled with meaningful, productive and mutually beneficial activities, but the team leader needs to set the goals and expectations, and provide a vision for the tenure. With appropriate action plans, a work environment that imbues an open mind, communication and engagement, and a qualified and enthusiastic RIS, reverse immersion can bring many insights that greatly benefit localization projects. In fact, it extends the team’s reach beyond borders.