Language Barriers in the Workplace

written on September 12, 2011 by Tameka Taylor

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More and more foreign born workers are becoming a part of our working community. Also, this is becoming a focus here in Northeast Ohio as the Global Cleveland Initiative has been launched. While many immigrants have no problem with English, there are others that do. Therefore, it causes a language barrier for some. Naturally communication is a two way process. Often the native speaker doesn’t realize that part of the language barrier is created by him or her.

It is important to slow down and speak clearly. This can save time later because by not communicating clearly initially leads to having miscommunication and then having to take the time to fix that miscommunication. Remember this does not mean to talk loud. Make sure that you ask for clarification when you’re not sure that you know what’s been said. It is imperative to frequently check in with the individual for understanding. Instead of asking, “Is that clear?” ask “What’s your understanding of this process?”

It is necessary to make sure that your choice of words is clear. It is essential to be sure you are avoiding using idioms. While other cultures use idioms often idioms used in the United States do not translate the same way in other languages. A good rule of thumb is that if the idiom requires knowledge or other information, then don’t use it. Another thing to watch out for is that you are not using jargon that outsiders can’t understand. Be careful not to use abbreviations or language that is exclusive to specific organizations. It is crucial to define terms and how they are used by you as they can have different connotations in different cultures. A few examples of that can be “punctuality” and “success.” Also, you need to be specific with your expectations and deadlines.

Each time you communicate make sure you choose the right medium of communication to be effective, whether that is telephone, email, instant message, video conference, etc. Email is often quick, but make sure it allows the communication to be effective especially if the message is complex or there is conflict that needs to be resolved. It is also helpful to use multiple modes of communication. For example, you can send a follow-up email after a conference call to reiterate what was decided. Another technique that works when there is a potential language barrier is to send materials in writing prior to the meeting or phone call.
The final thing to remember is to be patient when communicating with someone from a different culture. Cross- culture communication naturally will have more challenges than communicating with someone from your culture. Finally, it’s important to remember that communication is challenging enough without language barriers, so a few helpful tips can be useful when communicating across cultures.