It was only a few weeks ago when the China Technical Exchange was held at Cigi, and Da An, a Technologist in Asian Products & Extrusion Technology, guided the group through a session on noodles and steamed buns—in Mandarin. Okay, maybe I didn’t understand anything they were saying, but there was no need for translation. I didn’t have to understand the words to know that everyone was appreciating the opportunity to talk directly with one of Cigi’s technical staff in their own language. The atmosphere was more relaxed. People were more comfortable.
Such is the nature of the grain industry though; it’s a worldwide trade, so naturally, you’re going to encounter many different languages. Cigi is no exception. We often work with interpreters and translators but our own staff hails from places all over the world, and as such, Cigi inherently has a varied bank of languages to draw upon. After my first month working here, I’d already encountered so many languages, both from participants and staff alike.
However, this isn’t strange to me. Despite living in Canada, I grew up in a Greek household. Both my parents emigrated from Greece. I had Greek friends. I ate Greek food. My parents spoke Greek to me, and I spoke Greek back. In fact, I even learned to speak Greek before I did English. However, you don’t have to grow up in a Greek household to know that part of being Canadian is that you’re exposed to a certain amount of multicultural diversity. Canada’s roots are not tied up in one but in many.
Whether it’s working with customers from all over the world, leading hands-on technical sessions in our facilities, visiting countries on technical missions, making program arrangements, or simply having casual conversations, Cigi really is able to fulfill the international part of its name. Cigi does not recruit people on the basis of what they can offer linguistically, but given the relatively small size of the organization (40 people), we speak a lot of languages, some of which are used pretty regularly for work activities. Aside from English, I’ve managed to identify 19 other languages spoken at Cigi—everything from French to Polish to regional East Indian languages like Konkani—and I could be missing a few!
Including English, Cigi veteran Ashok Sarkar, Senior Advisor, Technology, speaks five languages—Hindi, Bengali, Urdu (similar to Hindi), and German. Throughout his time here, he says that Cigi has always had a linguistically diverse staff. When he studied milling technology in Germany, the program was only offered in German, but it gave him a useful skill that he has certainly put to use.
He recalls an occasion when he was in Fortaleza, Brazil when they were short on translators, but about a quarter of the milling company owners and executives spoke German, and Ashok was able to relay information. “I remained with that group, maintaining some level of communication,” he says.
“A similar situation was repeated in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where I presented milling topics in Bengali at a seminar at the request of a senior trade commissioner of the Canadian High Commission.”
But Ashok’s not the only one that benefits Cigi with his language skills.
“I have used Spanish for the Latin American programs and new crop missions that I have lead,” says Juan Carlos Arriola, Head of Milling Technology who joined Cigi in 2012. He began his milling career in Guatemala and Dominican Republic.
Juan Carlos says the Latin American countries that Cigi has visited greatly appreciated the fact that he was able to speak to them on their terms.
“Being able to speak Spanish helps to keep the meaning (of the conversation) when talking to Latin American customers abroad,” says Juan Carlos. “Lots can be lost in translation when dealing with technical expressions.”
Not all our auxiliary language skills are used strictly for technical discussions, programs and missions. Executive Assistant Patricia Le Sann often helps with greeting, aiding, or directing participants and other visitors at Cigi, and can do so in French.
“It makes me feel good that I can help close the gap when the interpreters are not nearby and the participants clearly need assistance,” she says. “If I know they speak French, I will always address them with a “bonjour.”
Patricia says French participants always seem so happy when they’re able to share in a French conversation.
“I know what it’s like to be in a foreign country and only speak limited words in their language. It is so exhausting,” she says. “When someone speaks your own language, you gravitate to that person for a moment of normalcy, so if I can help in that way, I’m happy to.”
When you speak the same language as someone (especially when it’s not the native tongue of the country) you share a connection with that person. A barrier that was once there ceases to exist, and in its stead is something akin to trust. That’s something that Cigi is able to offer to its clients.
Who knows? Maybe, if I’m lucky, I can put my language skills to use and help some future Greek participants. It’s really cool meeting international participants from all over the world, but to speak the language they do, to make them feel comfortable in a place that must be so foreign to them, to make them feel a little closer to home, would be a great honour.
- Amharic (native language of Ethiopia)
- Tigrigna (native language of Eritrea)
Mike Kontzamanis is a Creative Communications student at Red River College in Winnipeg. He worked at Cigi during the summer of 2015.