Leadership Network member shaped by a love of languages

Leadership Network member Nathan Taylor fell in love with languages while living in Indonesia as a teen. He deepened his understanding by studying linguistics at University in China and completing Masters research into the impact accents have on a person's perceived credibility. Now living in Christchurch, Nathan credits his interest in cultures and languages with playing an important role in the success of his latest venture.
Nathan taking a selfie on the set of a Chinese TV show, with two fellow Chinese language contestants in the background

Nathan Taylor on the Chinese Bridge TV show where foreign students are tested on their mastery of the Chinese language

Nathan Taylor has always had in interest in the way people sound, in addition to what they have to say.

 He reckons the curiosity stems from being catapulted from a childhood homeschooled in rural Canterbury to teenage years tagging along behind his parents’ humanitarian work in remote Indonesia.

 He found himself in Kalimantan, a rugged part of Borneo.

 Experts estimate approximately 170 languages and dialects are spoken on the island - and some, by just a few hundred people.

“That’s where my love of language began,” Nathan says.

He started learning Bahasa Indonesia – the national language - but also couldn’t ignore the wealth of other native tongues being spoken around him.

“I was fascinated with how different and complex the local dialects - and everyone spoke two or three of them – could be.”

Nathan pushing a motorcycle up a dirt track in a rural area

Nathan travelling to a friend's village in Kalimantan, Indonesia, aged 16

Fast-forward a few years, and Nathan’s love of languages landed him at the University of Canterbury, where he studied linguistics and Chinese.

He spent a year on a scholarship to Chengdu in Sichuan, China, polishing his Chinese conversational skills, before returning to Kiwi shores and picking up another scholarship, this time for post-graduate study.

His master’s research confirmed an uncomfortable truth – even the most open-minded of us can’t help but judge people by how they sound.

Nathan leaned on research done annually by the Asia New Zealand Foundation – it’s New Zealanders’ Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples survey - to inform his academic work.

He took a deep-dive into the influence of accent, specifically Chinese and Scottish accents, on our perceptions of a person’s credibility.

As any academic is, Nathan’s cautious about drawing sweeping conclusions from his testing of “one variable of credibility in this one location of New Zealand with this one group of listeners”.

But if he did, it may go something like this: Regardless of what someone has to say or their knowledge of a topic at hand, if they are perceived to have a stronger accent, we’re more likely to question their credibility.

Why? Well, unfortunately, plenty of it comes down to old-fashioned prejudice, but there is something less ugly at play too – during his research, Nathan also chucked some thicker, broader, harder to understand speakers into the mix.

If our brains take too long to process information, we may actually start to question the validity of what we’re hearing.

So, the thicker the accent, the more we may doubt a speaker’s credibility.

Nathan says there’s some quite messy implications – think an otherwise trustworthy financial advisor speaking with a regional twang or a jury listening to an expert witness with an accent.

Now, with a business partner, Nathan’s running a tech start-up – a pretty successful one too. He hesitates as he starts to explain it, no doubt being used to eyes glazing over as he does so.

“I’ll try not to bore you, as it’s quite a niche topic.”

As simply as possible: He deals in computer tech that helps match car parts – an alternator, a headlight, a shock absorber - to cars.

Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford – whatever the vehicle, its parts may travel along a chain of production and distribution quite separate to the company whose logo brands it.

His Christchurch-based company provides the tools, “the digital infrastructure”, to manage that information, which is really important for anyone who is using the information, often in an online world, particularly for e-commerce.

“No one, whether they’re a mechanic or just any person, will buy a part unless they’re confident it’s actually going to fit the vehicle they’re working on.”

Nathan taking a selfie on the Great Wall of China

Nathan spent a year on a scholarship to Chengdu in Sichuan, China

So how did a lover of language and linguistics end up here?

His “entrepreneurial journey”, he says, started in China, with the “deep experience” of living in a place where things are done differently from at home.

“Coming back to New Zealand you start seeing opportunities everywhere.”

There’s been trails and errors on the way to business success.

“It was three years of no salary, of living off two minute noodles, and working in a flat garage...before eventually landing on the problem that was worth solving and people were willing to pay a lot of money for.

“When I came back from China, and started seeing all of these opportunities, they were very high level, right?

“You don’t see specific niche problems; you see more problems like ‘oh, our payment infrastructure in New Zealand is very antiquated compared to the way they do it in China’ or ‘the way that China does e-commerce is ten times better than the way we do e-commerce in New Zealand’.”

It took him four years and two companies before he landed on a winner.

His ability to speak Chinese has resulted in “some great hires”, he says.

“We’ve got some fantastic talent. We're a very diverse company... 30 staff now and probably from over 20 different countries.”

It’s a no-brainer the tech sector relies on software engineers and developers, but his degree in linguistics and curiosity for cultures has aided his career success.

He understands people and language, and he’s had an international experience, he says, and that’s prepared him “exceptionally well” and brought him to where he is today.