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Overcoming language barriers to communication

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

By Brandi Gratis

November 28, 2016

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 are 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 and more companies start to face these same challenges.

Types of Language Barriers

We’ve already given you the most obvious example of a language barrier: people speaking languages native to different regions. But there are more subtle types of language barriers. For example, your industry or skill set may involve a lot of jargon or technical language. When you’re speaking to people outside your industry, or even outside 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, it’s important that each developer can communicate information in terms everyone can understand to ensure we’re all aligned on our companies 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.

Another example of a language barrier is dialects. People can technically be speaking the same language, but dialectical differences can create misunderstandings and gaps in communication. 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!

A final 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 have no bearing on someone’s ability to understand and do their job, but it can make communication more cumbersome.

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

To overcome language barriers in the workplace, here are a few things you can do:

1. Use plain language. Whether you’re working with someone who knows your primary language as a secondary, or you’re trying to communicate a deeply technical problem to your non-technical coworkers, everyone should get in the habit of using plain language whenever possible. While many people try to 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 be sure to vet their qualifications. You’ll see several free websites that 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, trusted interpreters should be used to ensure that there isn’t any information or instruction missed 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, and consider ongoing learning classes later on. Sales need to understand the ins and outs of any product they’re selling; marketing needs to understand why their products are important; and everyone needs to be able to speak a common language to plan for the future of the company.

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 even fluent because of these classes. This has opened up a world of opportunity 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 pictures or diagrams to explain complicated concepts. Visual queues are invaluable for getting everyone on the same page, not to mention, thinking more creatively about new solutions.

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 barriers to communication, can be frustrating. They require patience, understanding, and conscientiousness. Ensure that when you or your team are struggling to communicate that you never raise your voice or over-enunciate. 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 actual 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, too.

Final Thoughts

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

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