How to reduce language barriers to communication in the workplace
— February 25th, 2020
Increased global mobility means that today’s workforces are more multilingual and multicultural than ever.
For HR professionals, the challenge of ensuring effective internal communication includes being mindful of language barriers in the workplace.
A survey byForbes Insights found that language barriers had a significant impact on the business operations of more than 100 executives at large US businesses (those with annual revenues of more than $500 million).
It was also highlighted in the survey that in the future, it is expected that foreign language skills will be more vital than ever and that those who possess these skills will have better opportunities to grow their career, aid overseas expansion, and achieve both corporate and personal success.
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What are examples of language barriers?
Poor Communication Skills – This type of barrier can occur when two people in the workplace, both with bad communication skills, struggle to understand each other’s intended meaning while having an interaction. Employers should work on developing strong communication skills in their employees to avoid such issues.
English as a Foreign Language – When employees do not speak English, or sometimes even if they have fluency in the language, certain colloquial phrases or expressions can still cause confusion. Avoiding idioms such as “the early bird catches the worm” or the use of words that sound similar to others is a good way to counteract barriers such as these.
In addition, it is helpful to talk at a slow pace and to try to get points across in a couple of different ways, so it is easier for non-native speakers to grasp the meaning.
Dyslexia as a Language Barrier – Conditions such as dyslexia, which impacts an individual’s ability to read and understand words and symbols, in addition to dyscalculia, which can cause a person to mix up numbers, are considered another type of communication barrier. These types of conditions, although common and not impacting a worker’s level of intelligence, can cause misunderstandings when reading documents or emails.
Employers should check in with employees suffering from these conditions to see if there is anything they can provide to aid them in doing their job such as a spell-checking app or a speech-to-text app.
Why are Language Barriers a Problem?
Apart from causing problems in face-to-face meetings in the workplace, language barriers are an issue as they can impact conference calls, digital communications, and often lead to serious mistakes being made.
A study found that language barriers are also a problem as65 percent of companies that participated said these barriers contributed to ineffectiveness, poor collaboration, and low productivity levels, among other issues in their workplaces.
Furthermore, these barriers are a concern as they limit a company’s opportunity for growth and expansion into international markets. This is why it’s almost essential these days for organizations to have the means to communicate effectively with international partners by hiring employees with fluency in foreign languages.
By hiring individuals who speak different languages and helping current employees develop clear communication these problems can be avoided. Organizations should also provide workers with any helpful tools they may require to make these processes easier for them.
What is a cultural language barrier?
When it comes to communication, cultural divides can present themselves in other ways than when members of a team speak different languages. For example, in certain countries, speakers will opt to use very direct language which in another culture may be misconstrued as being rude. This can be especially apparent if a worker is communicating with an employer or supervisor.
It is useful for employers to establish a baseline where a common understanding of different styles of communication and body language exists.
Methods to deal with cultural divides in the workplace:
Practice active listening
When a speaker feels their voice is being heard, it will make it easy to establish trust and build a relationship with them. When practicing active listening, it’s important for employers and colleagues to:
- Give the speaker their full attention, especially if the speaker is a non-native English speaker.
- Paraphrase the conversation and relay it back to the speaker to make sure they have understood.
- Examine the speaker’s body language to gain a better insight into how they are feeling – do they appear positive, calm, stressed, confused.
- Use their own body language to show the speaker that they are actively listening to them. This can be done by nodding or maintaining eye contact.
- Use simple language to give instructions and ask the other speaker to repeat them to make sure they are clear.
- Be friendly and approachable. In some cultures, individuals may feel reluctant to give their opinions or raise issues. Both co-workers and employers should make it clear to these individuals that it is safe to do so.
- Be aware that not all cultures will understand certain types of humor and may even feel disrespected or insulted. It’s important to ensure these employees are familiar with the brand of humor and will not take offense before using it.
Keep an open mind
- All members of the workplace should make an effort to familiarize themselves with their team members' or co-workers’ backgrounds and cultures. If there are elements of these cultures that some find hard to understand then it is essential that they reserve judgment and keep an open mind.
- Employers should consider promoting cultural diversity among their employees. Dedicating a couple of hours to where team members talk about certain elements of their culture could help increase knowledge and understanding, and it could also be a good icebreaker.
How can you avoid communication barriers?
So how can you ensure everyone stays on the same page, even if they don’t share a common mother tongue?
Write things down
Vocal communication in meetings is one thing, but to be absolutely sure everyone has understood the action points, take detailed minutes and circulate them afterward. Even where teams have agreed to work within a common language such as English or Spanish, it’s difficult to ensure everyone has genuinely comprehended what’s been discussed.
There can also be additional cultural barriers of communication in certain instances: for example in some cultures there may be a reflex to agree, which can suggest comprehension, even where the listener doesn’t truly understand. Asking meeting participants to repeat back their understanding of what’s been said, followed up later by a written summary everyone can review, is a good way to ensure the lines of communication are truly open.
Honor titles where it’s important to do so
Honorifics, or titles of respect such as “Miss,” “Mr.” or “Doctor”, are hugely important in certain cultures. Take the time to discern which of your stakeholders or customers should be addressed with these formal salutations, and customize communications such as a company newsletter to use these.
Your recipients, if they’re from a different culture, may also have vastly different expectations from yours when it comes to writing styles and the type of content that’s normal in an emailed communication. Poppulo allows you to segment and target information and personalizes content for each recipient — a good way to demonstrate that you understand and respect the expectations of your readers.
Beware pitfalls of speaking the same language
Even where team members share a native language, they may have a different nuanced understanding of certain terms. Forbes has a fascinating piece describing one nonprofit’s realization that “engagement” meant two totally different things to its technology team and its outreach team. Make sure to define key terms early in your communications and regularly check that team members agree on those definitions or new terms you may adopt.
Make language accessibility a priority
Remember there can be many types of language barriers, and they aren’t always across different languages but can be caused by people who find it harder to read or understand a language due to language disabilities such as dyslexia. Dyslexia Action has a style guide to help you produce dyslexia-friendly content for your internal communications, including guidance on font selection, word spacing, and formatting (FYI, to indicate emphasis, avoid italics, all caps, small caps, and underlining in favor of bold text).
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The importance of reducing language barriers in the workplace
Reducing language barriers in the workplace is something that should be a top priority for employers. Ignoring such barriers or trying to work around them can lead to a number of serious issues including employee incompetence, misunderstandings, low productivity levels, and feelings of isolation. Furthermore, having language barriers can damage a business’s chances of expanding into an international market and can severely impact its potential for growth. By overcoming language barriers, these potential problems can be avoided and there is an opportunity to embrace and benefit from everything a diverse workplace has to offer.