Better Marketing Through Travel. Or the Power of a Bilingual Brain.

August 12, 2013

At Blue Sky Marketing, we believe that bilingualism and travel go hand-in-hand in generating great marketing ideas. Speaking multiple languages may be an advantage in more ways than one. According to 2010 research by the Carnegie Mellon University, bilinguals are speedier task-switchers than monolinguals. Bilinguals are statistically better at reasoning, at multitasking, at grasping and reconciling conflicting ideas.  I "needed" real-world proof of concept so I grabbed a last minute chance to fly to the wonderful land of the Samurai. Born and raised in an international family, and as intercultural mediator, I am fairly strong at ciao-ing, eñe-ing, Umlaut-ing and y'all-ing — but I had no clue on ideograms. Japan was in fact the real challenge. I left with a couple of grammar rules, less than the basics for survival in words, no dictionary, a Lonely Planet, no cash (but of course, credit cards!!), fresh clothes and comfy shoes.

Five amazing days in the Land of the Rising Sun

Senso-ji Temple | TokyoMay-kee-kee: or made to please the eye — Everything is beautifully made in Japan, from the textiles, to the little food miniatures, to the gift-wrapping. I was astonished by the elegance of women walking in their perfectly bowed kimonos. Their walking mixed calmness and extreme hurry, as if they needed to gracefully run somewhere. 

Ego ga hanasemaska (Do you speak English?) - You may be surprised that many Japanese don't speak a word of English. However, Japanese has borrowed many words from our language, often shortening and adapting them, eg. es-ka-re-ta, for escalator; te-re-bi, for television; pah-soh-kon for personal computer;  buh-rah-kkuh-beh-ri for blackberry. A small phoenetic phrasebook can really make your day. I got mine in a deh-pah-ato (department store), after a little bit of digging into the world of ideograms.

Tsukiji Fish Market | TokyoSushi — Don't expect Japanese to eat sushi all the time. Traditional Japanese cuisine features rice, miso soup and other dishes, with a strong focus on seasonal ingredients. Vegetables are pickled, or deep-fried in a light batter as tempura. Fish is more often grilled and only sometimes served as sashimi or sushi (which, as you can imagine, has a much more fishier and stronger flavor compared to what we eat in the US). If you ever get to Tokyo, don't miss the Tsukiji Fish Market and the fascinating neighborhood around it. It's like living in a manga.

1001365_10201087998756222_1375347154_nKobe-beef — Dining with the locals in a traditional kobe-beef restaurant is something you cannot miss. Either shabu-shabu or sukiyaki are thinly sliced beef boiled or simmered in the nabemono (Japanese hot pot) style, alongside with vegetables and dipping sauces. Sukiyaki includes dipping in a raw, beaten eggs. It's a little shocking, but delicious! We also learned about multi-generational dining when we "sat" down to eat. As you may know, the Japanese traditionally kneel to eat. Younger generations, however, prefer to have a hole under the table where they can comfortably stretch their legs while seeming to kneel.

Nimble brain.

I had not heard a word of Japanese in my life - other than The Last Samurai, for the parts in original language — all devoutly captioned. For the first 24 hours I was lost absorbing all the sounds I could absorb. From the second day, everything astonishingly began to fall in place. I could find myself recognizing patterns out of the soundscape I was immersed in. I was able to interpret the key pitches and the rhythms of Japanese, which I perceived as a very harmonious language. I started getting that the verbs are at the end of the sentence; I understood that 'mashta' was the past tense, as the people would say for example 'arigato gozaimasu' while we were inside the store, and 'gozaimashta' on our way out, pulling the last syllable almost like in a singsong. I would repeat the same sounds after a couple of listenings and I remember them still today. What I had read in the studies that the bilingual brain is more efficient, faster in processing and very sound friendly felt true on my visit to Japan. The constant toggling that comes from having to choose among two or more words for every concept is a pure task-switching effort. It is hard to measure how anyone of us responds to the world, but there are some interesting proxies, like the Stroop test, where subjects are flashed with mismatches of color / word - the word black printed in red, say - and told to ignore what the word says and only announce the color. Almost universally, bilinguals are faster and make fewer mistakes.

How could YOU enhance your flexibility?

  1. Make a resolution and learn a new language. Start easy. Be conscious of your learning type (Do you learn by listening? By reading? By experiencing?), and start a private or a class course. There a bunch of language courses at private institutes, as well as continuous education classes at the major universities. What I have really found effective lately is Skype classes. It's approximately 75% less than one in person; you get a one-to-one class (and results!), and custom hours to fit your busy agenda.
  2. Get exposed to a new culture. In a city such as Houston where people speak over 90 languages, you are really able to pick from a wide range of choices. Hang out with a bilingual or non-native colleague, dine in an ethnic restaurant, check out the Internations community, read a book about your next trip and local cultural values. You'll get closer to the culture and attitudes. Suspend your judgment and persevere.
  3. Try something new. Learn to dance, cook a new recipe, or try a new route to work. Changing the context of your environment will make you feel a mind shift. In a study led by Wilma Koutstaal (The Agile Mind, 2011), older adults who participated in a variety of new and stimulating activities over a 3-month period showed a significant gain in creativity, problem-solving abilities and other markers of "fluid intelligence" when compared to a control group. Mental flexibility is aided by novelty, and that contributes to brain growth and development throughout a lifetime.
  4. Challenge your neurons. Many of you may be familiar with Lumosity, an online brain-training program consisting of over 40 games in the areas of memory, attention, flexibility, speed, and problem solving. Stimulate your neurons with a diet of challenging, novel tasks. You'll see yourself get better and better everyday. And your brain will thrive on the challenge!

At Blue Sky Marketing we are proudly bilingual and bicultural. If you are looking for a partner in marketing strategy developmentonline marketing strategyLinkedIn for business development, or communications development, please contact us to see how we can help.

Author: Sara Barbieri, Blue Sky Marketing

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