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Overcoming language barriers to communication

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

May 17, 2024

In this series, we discuss The Seven Barriers to 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 work 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. Jargon or esoteric vocabulary only creates the opportunity for miscommunication and makes people feel bad that they can’t understand what you’re saying. The key is to create a workplace culture of speaking simply and explaining all issues as straightforwardly as possible.

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 much 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 for 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.

Language barrier examples

Real-life examples provide valuable insights into how language barriers manifest and impact day-to-day operations in diverse workplaces. Here are a few scenarios based on experiences at Nulab and other international companies:

1. Multilingual meetings

In multinational companies, language barriers often surface during meetings where team members from different linguistic backgrounds come together. For instance, misunderstandings may arise when discussing project requirements, timelines, or deliverables, leading to delays or misaligned expectations.

2. Cross-cultural collaboration

When teams collaborate across different time zones and cultures, language barriers can complicate communication and coordination efforts. For example, cultural differences in communication styles and decision-making processes may contribute to misunderstandings or conflicts among team members.

3. Customer support challenges

In customer-facing roles, language barriers can pose significant challenges when assisting clients or resolving inquiries. For instance, support agents may struggle to understand and address customer issues effectively, resulting in dissatisfaction or escalation of complaints.

4. Product localization

During the localization of products or services for international markets, language barriers become apparent in translation and adaptation processes. Issues such as mistranslations, cultural insensitivity, or ambiguity in messaging can undermine the effectiveness of marketing campaigns or user experiences.

By sharing these real-life examples, organizations can identify common challenges associated with language barriers and develop targeted strategies to address them effectively.

The role of leadership in bridging language barriers

Effective leadership and communication play a pivotal role in overcoming language barriers and fostering a culture of inclusivity and collaboration. Here are key principles and practices for leaders to consider:

Clear communication

Leaders should prioritize clear and concise communication to ensure messages are understood by all team members, regardless of their language proficiency. Avoiding jargon, using visual aids, and providing context can enhance comprehension and reduce misunderstandings.

Active listening

Leaders should practice active listening to understand the perspectives and concerns of team members from diverse linguistic backgrounds. Encourage open dialogue, ask clarifying questions, and validate the experiences of individuals impacted by language barriers.

Empathy and respect

Cultivate empathy and respect for cultural differences and language challenges within the team. Acknowledge the efforts of employees to communicate effectively in a non-native language and create a supportive environment where everyone feels valued and heard.

Language training and development

Invest in language training and development programs to support employees in improving their language skills. Offer resources, such as language classes, tutoring sessions, or online learning platforms, to help individuals overcome language barriers and enhance their professional growth.

Conflict resolution

Develop effective strategies for resolving conflicts and addressing misunderstandings that may arise due to language barriers. Encourage open communication, mediate disputes impartially, and promote a culture of collaboration and mutual respect among team members.

By demonstrating leadership and fostering effective communication practices, leaders can mitigate the impact of language barriers and create an inclusive work environment where all employees can thrive.

Continuous improvement towards better communication

Continuous improvement is essential for organizations to adapt to evolving language-related challenges and enhance communication effectiveness over time. Here are strategies for promoting continuous improvement in language diversity and inclusivity:

  • Feedback mechanisms: Implement feedback mechanisms to solicit input from employees on language-related issues and areas for improvement. Conduct surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one discussions to gather insights and identify actionable steps for enhancing communication processes.
  • Training evaluation: Regularly evaluate the effectiveness of language training and development initiatives to assess their impact on employee proficiency and performance. Monitor participation rates, learning outcomes, and feedback from participants to refine training programs and address emerging needs.
  • Cross-functional collaboration: Encourage cross-functional collaboration and knowledge sharing to leverage diverse perspectives and expertise in addressing language barriers. Facilitate interdisciplinary workshops, team-building activities, or peer learning opportunities to foster collaboration and innovation.
  • Benchmarking and best practices: Benchmark language diversity and inclusivity practices against industry standards and best practices. Stay informed about emerging trends, technologies, and research findings related to language diversity and incorporate promising strategies into organizational initiatives.
  • Celebrating progress: Recognize and celebrate progress in overcoming language barriers and promoting multilingualism within the organization. Highlight success stories, showcase employee achievements, and reinforce the importance of diversity and inclusion in achieving organizational goals.

By embracing a culture of continuous improvement, organizations can adapt to linguistic diversity, enhance communication effectiveness, and create a more inclusive workplace for all employees.

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.

In addition to the strategies discussed earlier, leveraging specialized software tools can further facilitate language diversity and inclusivity within the organization. Two such software solutions worth considering are Backlog and Cacoo, both developed by Nulab.

Backlog, our project management and collaboration tool, offers features designed to streamline communication and enhance transparency in multilingual environments. With its intuitive interface and customizable workflows, Backlog enables teams to coordinate tasks, share updates, and track progress seamlessly across language barriers. Moreover, its built-in translation functionality allows users to translate project content into multiple languages, ensuring that all team members can access and understand critical information regardless of their linguistic background.

Cacoo, a diagramming and visual collaboration platform, empowers teams to communicate complex ideas and concepts visually, transcending language barriers with ease. Whether creating flowcharts, wireframes, or mind maps, Cacoo provides a user-friendly environment for generating visual representations of information that transcend linguistic limitations. By fostering visual communication and knowledge sharing, Cacoo enables teams to bridge cultural and linguistic divides, resulting in more effective collaboration and problem-solving.

By incorporating tools like Backlog and Cacoo into their workflow, organizations can augment their efforts to overcome language barriers and create a more inclusive and productive work environment for all employees. With the right combination of strategies and technology, organizations can harness the power of diversity and unlock new opportunities for innovation and success in today’s global marketplace.

This post was originally published on November 28, 2016, and updated most recently on May 17, 2024.



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