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How to Bridge Language Barriers in the Workplace

As employee groups become ever more diverse and the use of global outsourcing increases, the potential for working with, training, and interacting with people for whom English is not their first language also increases. The natural result is typically a combination of confusion, fear, and misinterpretation.

Language Barriers in the Workplace

Often, the obsession with communication in business seems to focus on two-way quantity before quality. Actually, both features are equally important for smooth and effective corporate operations. Even the slightest language barrier can dilute and reduce the effectiveness of communications.

In the current workplace, co-workers can sometimes be from different countries and continents. If you interact with others who have language issues, with English as their second language, the potential for miscommunication expands geometrically.

Leading employee training seminars is even more challenging. You are expected to dispense important information, ensure that your audience understands your presentation, and converts your words into efficient, productive action in the workplace. You must bridge the language gap to achieve your training goal.

The more technical or conceptual the worker interaction, the more important - and difficult - building the language bridge becomes. While converting all the subtle nuances of your native language to another person with a different native language is impossible in the short-term, you must be as clear as possible to convey the complete essence of your conversation. Here are some specific tips to build your communications bridge successfully.

Language Bridge Building Tips

  • Adjust your “language level” to fit your audience or listener.Learn about the understanding level of your listeners and adjust your speech to match their comprehension competency. Not only will your listeners appreciate your consideration, your words will be better understood. Workplace communications depend on comprehension for effective operations. In these language situations, the burden of delivering words, instruction, and training is on you to transmit information in the proper format.

  • Pronounce all words carefully.People tend to become “lazy” with their pronunciation when speaking at the workplace. Using language “shortcuts” and acronyms, employees often communicate in “workplace code.” When communicating to those with language challenges, it is imperative that you annunciate and pronounce every word carefully. Also, remember to speak a bit slower than normal to allow your listeners to have that extra micro-second needed to process and understand your words.
  • Use only plain language, avoiding slang, jargon, or buzzwords.Try to use only simple, clear words and sentence structures to increase listener comprehension. If you have some understanding of another language, you probably listen carefully to the spoken words, often hearing only some words in a sentence. However, if the speaker talks rapidly or uses uncommon words, you might miss the entire meaning or purpose of the comment. Using plain, simple, common vocabulary words helps the listener understand the real meaning of your communication.

  • Be aware of cultural differences. Some differences in culture can confound listeners, even if you are careful to use precise pronunciation and simple words. For example, referencing recent “football” games, can mean rugby to some and soccer to others and may only confuse your co-workers. Understand that some cultural differences change the meaning or context of even simple words.

  • Employ visuals to clarify your message. Visual aids (pictures, graphs, videos, etc.) can help you construct an effective bridge to your listeners. When facing language barriers and giving a presentation or training session, visual props can clarify any potential confusion felt by your audience. Even with everyday workplace communication, employing visual aids, ie, holding the product you’re talking about, helps eliminate any lingering communication gap.

While the “burden” of understanding is technically on the “foreign” listeners to learn sufficient English to function in the workplace, you should use these simple tips to help your co-workers and/or audience communicate and understand questions, comments, and directions. Your listeners will appreciate your consideration of their language challenges.

Your co-workers’ and employer’s respect level will increase because of your bridge-building ability. Your sincere and effective efforts may translate into new promotion opportunities and higher compensation.

June 2011


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