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Overcoming language barriers to communication

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

February 04, 2022

In this series, we discuss The Seven Barriers of Communication. This post is dedicated to language barriers. Stay tuned as we discuss each.

Language barriers are a common challenge here at Nulab, as they are with many international companies. With Nulab offices in Japan and the US, we’re often working on new and better ways to understand one another, bridge communication gaps, and improve company-wide collaboration. More than half of us speak Japanese, some only speak English, and a growing majority are learning to speak both. In light of globalization, we’re bound to see more companies face these same challenges.

What is a language barrier?

No matter which communication channels we use, our biggest obstacle is the ability (or inability) to understand what others are saying. Every conversation, email, report, and memo will be unproductive if the words don’t make sense to others. You won’t be able to execute ideas well as a team because there isn’t a clear agreement on what to do or how to do it.

A language barrier is any linguistic limitation that creates confusion or prevents comprehension. A barrier could refer to national and cultural languages but may also include specialized knowledge or speech impairments.

Whatever the source of the problem, it’s crucial to identify language barriers and manage them. When people don’t share a common language, they must develop techniques to clarify their ideas and ensure others are on the same page.

Types of language barriers

Spoken languages and dialects

We’ve already given you the most obvious example of a language barrier: people speaking languages native to different regions. Dialects are another example of a language barrier. People can technically speak the same language and still face misunderstandings and gaps in communication due to dialectical differences. India, for example, uses over 22 major languages, written in 13 different scripts, with over 720 dialects. That leaves a lot of room for linguistic mix-ups!

Technical languages

Specialized knowledge leads to more subtle types of language barriers. For example, your industry or skill set may involve a lot of jargon or technical language. When speaking to people outside your industry or your department, a lot can get lost in translation.

At Nulab, our development team makes up a huge portion of our company. When speaking to other departments, developers must communicate information in terms everyone can understand to ensure we’re all aligned on our company’s goals. If marketing doesn’t understand what Dev is doing, and Dev has no idea what the executive team is doing, we’re all in deep trouble.

Language disabilities

Another example you should be aware of is language disabilities. Many people work with physical impediments to language, such as stuttering, dysphonia, and hearing loss. These impediments have no bearing on someone’s ability to understand and do their job, but they can make communication more cumbersome.

Written communications

The advice, “write how you speak,” doesn’t always play out well in real life. Our gestures, surroundings, and visual cues add context to the conversation in person. It’s much easier to clear up misunderstandings when you can point to things or mime actions to reflect your thinking.

However, in writing, the words, abbreviations, punctuation, and phrasing we choose can often be interpreted in more than one way. Not convinced? P.T. Barnum’s famed attraction, a Giant Man Eating Chicken (vs. man-eating chicken), is the perfect example of how written language can confuse and mislead people.

Company-specific language

Many organizations invest a great deal of time and money into developing a corporate language. While this rarely poses a problem for existing employees, newcomers need time to become familiar with company-specific jargon or acronyms. When niche language is frequently used in company communications, recruits may struggle to understand the company’s goals or what’s personally expected of them.

With so many ways language can impede our ability to collaborate, it’s crucial to have strategies for connecting everyone. We have seven tips to get you started.

Overcoming language barriers

Here are a few things you can do to overcome language barriers in the workplace.

1. Use plain language.

Whether you’re working with someone whose native language is different or trying to explain a technical problem to non-technical co-workers, everyone should get in the habit of using plain language whenever possible.

While many people use large words to make themselves sound intelligent or good at their jobs, they’re not doing anyone any favors. Using jargon or esoteric vocabulary only creates the opportunity for miscommunication and makes people feel bad that they can’t understand what you’re saying. Creating a culture in your workplace of speaking simply and explaining all issues as straightforwardly as possible is key.

2. Find a reliable translation service.

If you’re working across international offices, enlist the help of a qualified translator or find a translation service that meets your needs. Every document deemed important to the entire company should be translated into the primary language of your other offices.

Be careful when finding a service, and vet their qualifications. Several free websites claim to translate text from one language to another, but they may not account for different dialects. And sometimes, words have different usages in different cultures.

3. Enlist interpreters.

Whether you have existing bilingual employees or hire one, use trusted interpreters to ensure these team members don’t miss any information or instruction due to a language barrier.

4. Provide classes for your employees.

If you’re working in a highly technical environment, like a SaaS company, include a crash course to your jargon during initial job training. Then, consider ongoing learning classes later on. The sales team needs to understand the ins and outs of any product they sell. Marketing needs to understand why their products are important. And everyone needs to be able to speak a common language to plan for the company’s future.

If you’re an international company, offer free classes for learning the language of another office. Here at Nulab, our Japan office takes weekly English classes. Many of our staff have become conversational or fluent because of these classes. This has opened up opportunities for our English-speaking teams to communicate better with our Japanese offices.

5. Use visual methods of communication.

Words often fail us, and when they do, showing can be a lot more effective than telling. Use visuals and diagrams to explain complicated concepts. Visual cues are invaluable for getting everyone on the same page, not to mention thinking more creatively about new solutions.

Creating a database of company resources can also help your team independently seek more information on topics they don’t understand. If your written communications are primarily through email or chat apps, get in the habit of attaching these resources to better explain company initiatives and answer common questions.

6. Use repetition.

Language barrier or not, people often need to hear something more than once to understand and remember it. Don’t expect anyone to remember something you said once. If it’s important, make it a regular part of your communication.

7. Be respectful.

Language barriers, like all communication barriers, can be frustrating. They require patience, understanding, and conscientiousness. Ensure that you never raise your voice or over-enunciate when you or your team struggle to communicate.

Talk slower instead of louder, clearly instead of forcefully. And remember, when someone is working through a language hurdle, it has nothing to do with their intelligence or ability to grasp the concept behind what you’re trying to say. Continue to speak proper English as you search for common ground, so they can learn how to understand correctly.

Final thoughts

Language barriers can be challenging, but working with people of different cultures and backgrounds drives innovation, creativity, and success. Don’t let language barriers stand in the way of embracing everything a diverse workplace offers.

This post was originally published on November 28, 2016, and updated most recently on February 4, 2022.



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