Best Practice

How to reduce language barriers to communication in the workplace

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. So how can you ensure everyone stays on the same page, even if they don’t share a common mother tongue?


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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 to 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 personalize 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).


Celebrate language and culture diversity

Above all remember that a multilingual workplace is a multicultural one, and that diversity of backgrounds is a strength, not a handicap. Actively seek out and celebrate the cultures in your workplace: many organizations have get-togethers like potluck days, where team members bring in a dish from their culture once a month.

Don’t forget to publicize and celebrate get-togethers like these in your internal newsletterand do let team members know you appreciate that not everyone is a native speaker of the company’s common language, and encourage them to speak up if they’re having any trouble understanding your internal communications. There’s no better way to send a positive signal to your team that you’re serious about prioritizing clear communication and overcoming language barriers in your multilingual workplace.


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