Maggi had it right in Singapore, even in the 80s.
I remember being seven and watching the Maggi instant noodle adverts featuring Singaporean children, wearing typical Singaporean school uniforms, coming home from school and mummy preparing them Maggi noodles. I was convinced that the name Maggi was synonymous for instant noodles and Asian sauces (Maggi’s sweet chilli sauce was always a favourite).
Ask most Singaporeans today and they’d still be convinced that Maggi is a Singaporean or Malaysian brand, and not the exotic Swiss/German brand it really is. The localisation of the brand was so successful that Singaporeans relate to it as one might relate to a member of one’s own family, i.e. with familiarity and loyalty. Even today, Maggi continues to foster a localised brand in Youtube videos like this, which uses Chinese and Singlish (a Singaporean blend of English), familiar icons that hark back to the good ol’ days (e.g. the street-side hawker stall) and even localised humour, to promote their latest local offering.
So what is localisation?
Localisation is the process of adapting a product or content to suit a specific locale. The goal is to provide a product with the look and feel of having been created for the target market, to eliminate or minimise local sensitivities. (The Globalization and Localization Association).
McDonald’s is another successful example of a brand that has localised their products as they start to branch out to international markets. Whether it’s the Quarter Pounder with cheese, or the Royale with cheese, McDonald’s is happy to adapt their product names to fit their local markets.
And it doesn't stop just at the naming of their products. In Japan, you will find mashed potato, cabbage and katsu sauce in a Korokke burger. In Hong Kong, instead of two sesame seed buns, you might find your burger between two rice cakes. And in Germany, a McSausage burger.
This year, in Singapore, McDonald's launched their salted egg yolk chicken burger to keep up with the trendy salted egg yolk fad. Despite the mixed reviews about their new products, what mattered was that McDonald’s was quick to react to local trends and was never afraid of trying new things out and innovating.
There are, however, global products that do not feel the need to localise. Luxury brand, Gucci, for example, resists the need to localise as their brand is based on an aspirational, unattainable, glamourous image.
And for a long time, the globalisation of English language teaching took an approach not too unlike Gucci’s. With the assumption that teaching English must also mean a one-size-fits-all teaching of British/American culture, many English language courses often included a glimpse into the British/American way of life, British/American concerns, British/American localised idioms and colloquialisms, British/American pronunciation and British/American discourse patterns.
And for the majority of our learners, no matter how hard they tried, they would never quite reach the end goal of becoming native-speaker-like…perhaps because they simple aren’t native speakers.
Did we perhaps see ourselves as selling a high-end luxury product like Gucci that prides itself as being aspirational and unattainable? This seems rather counterproductive when we consider ourselves to be in the business of helping our learners acquire a foreign language, especially when we are talking about a language that is now used globally by everyone to communicate in all sorts of local settings.
In other words, as English becomes international, it is vital that we understand the particularities of the different ways English is being used, the different communities of practice that use English, and the ways we can adapt our teaching to the local communities. And this means becoming well-acquainted with the concept of glocalization.
Glocalization is by no means a new thing. Romans have been known to adapt local religious/pagan figures and mythology to successfully integrate their culture into local civilizations.
But as we can see with case studies of brands that have tried to globalise their business by way of localising, it’s not always easy getting it right.
Supermarket giant Tesco attempted to break into the Japanese and USA market but failed to understand the different attitudes towards grocery shopping in these target markets. In Japan, where shoppers are tending towards smaller grocery stores and cooking with fresh food bought on the day, Tesco’s buy-one-get-one-free meat products and bulk buy offers did not go down as well as they did in Britain. In order to penetrate the competitive US grocery market, Tesco attempted to re-position themselves as an organic food supermarket. However, although organic stores and lifestyles are popular in Europe, they had not exactly caught on amongst the mass market in the US, leading to losses of nearly £850m.
As we can see from the above example, a different culture could mean a different way of doing things and a different attitude to what seems to be the simplest things (like how often we shop for groceries) that we so easily take for granted. And mis-targeting could lead to a loss of interest, or worse, a loss of clients/students.
In English language teaching, delivering a one-size-fits-all model to learners and assuming they all want the same thing would inevitably result in the same kind of mis-targeting. Perhaps it’s time we start tailoring our products to suit our target market so that we can continue to be relevant to the local communities. But how can we go about doing so?
1. Do your research on your students. Find out local and individual sensitivities.
This can take the form of:
- Online research (find out about where they are from, look at their social media profiles);
- Needs analysis;
- Face-to-face negotiations of the syllabus at the beginning of the course, or simply discussions with students about their attitudes and beliefs towards language learning;
- Active listening. Listen to what your students are saying, and what they are not saying. Observe how they interact with each other in class. And watch for cultural differences between the way you communicate and the way they do.
Ultimately, the more you know about your students, the easier it is to tailor the lesson to suit their needs, wants and lacks.
2. Don't assume your students are learning English to speak to the English.
English has become the global language of science, education, trade and commerce, and many are learning English because it has become a necessary tool to have in their business toolkit. The majority of English learners will be using the language to communicate with others for whom English is not their first language. So avoid assuming that the English way of doing things or the English way of looking at the world is one that English learners will be needing. Instead, conduct a thorough needs analysis.
3. Avoid forcing your attitudes and your style of communication upon your students and assuming that it is the best way for everyone.
Here are some examples of what you could reflect on. Do your students share your attitudes towards the following? How could differences affect communication?
- How do you take turns? Do you interrupt a lot in group conversations? Are you comfortable with silences between turns?
- What do you consider to be polite? Do you hedge a lot? (kind of, sort of, a little bit, not exactly) Do you camouflage requests in indirect statements? Do you expect help to be offered even if you did not explicitly ask for it?
- What is your attitude towards hierarchy and the resulting communication styles? Should a student be submissive to the teacher? How would you feel if the student interrupts or openly disagrees with the teacher?
- What is your attitude towards time? If the lesson starts at 9am, is it okay for the teacher to walk in at 9.10am? What if it was the student who walked in at 9.10am?
4. Include local events, festivities, pop culture and language in your lessons and your tasks.
A lot of English language course materials tend to focus on British or American holidays, British or American place names, British or American celebrities and personalities, and generally, the British or American ways of life.
Do adapt course books and write lesson plans to personalise the material. There is something hugely motivating about being able to speak about what you are familiar with, albeit in a foreign language, to your teacher and fellow classmates.
However, doing the above means getting to know the students’ local culture and not just paying lip service to it. A family member of mine who works in advertising in Singapore complained that it is extremely common for western companies from America or Britain when launching a product in Asia to include either fortune cookies or a dragon in their product design or advertisement. Their attempt to localise their product simply triggered a lot of eye-rolling and exasperated sighs. After all, Asia is not only about fortune cookies and dragons.
A similar mistake was made by companies trying to enter the markets in Africa but misguidedly characterising the continent as a single entity and thus failing to connect with the consumers.
5. New students are your chance to inject new culture and a new learning experience into your classroom.
With each new student is a new way of doing things, a different style of communicating, and an original resource for you to tap into. Lead by example and be genuinely curious about the new students, and the other students will follow. This will also show your sensitivity to the individuals in the class, and reaffirm the fact that you will cater to each and every student and their learning process.
6. Use your instincts and don't be afraid to do things differently.
Just because things have been done a certain way for a long time does not mean that you have to continue doing them that way. So your student is going to need English for business that is conducted with Spanish-speaking South Americans - is there any point in spending time on that list of British idioms in the book that everyone in the staffroom uses? And for your Chinese student who will be using English with the Germans that she is working with, will there be any value in teaching her to make extremely indirect polite requests using phrases like "I was wondering if you should happen to come across a photocopy of this article, if you somehow don't mind passing on the message so that I know about it?"?
Once you know your students and their needs, it should only take a dose of common sense to realise what parts of the course or course material need adapting and how to go about doing so.
After all, you only need to look at the successful global brands to know that effective localisation can only take place when you know your target market.