What Did You Say? How to Break Down Language Barriers Among Global Teams

Leading other people is a tough job. In an era where many working teams are scattered all over the world, that role can get a lot tougher.

Besides the barriers we all know about, such as how to communicate across different time zones, a more fundamental one gets overlooked: How on earth do you communicate in the first place?

Language barriers are a big problem in today’s workforce

In a survey of executives of large U.S. businesses, 65% of respondents reported that their companies face language barriers between executives/management and workers, and 67% responded that miscommunications contribute to inefficiency.

Even with English as the global lingua franca, there are many opportunities for the meaning of messages to be lost or misinterpreted, even when people are speaking the same language.

Far too many English-speaking managers have tried everything to explain something to a non-native English speaker, but are met with blank stares or loads of emails with clarifying questions. It’s enough to make them want to throw up their hands in frustration and long for the days when people only worked at the office, and a company only did business in its home country.

The good news is that with a few small tweaks, communication among linguistically-diverse teams can be improved, leading to greater efficiency and ultimately increasing a company’s bottom line.

The age of English

Over time, several large companies have adopted English as a common language to streamline communication among employees who speak different languages. The BBC has reported that French food services company Sodexo is in the process of making English its official language.

Other companies that have made the shift include Japanese tire manufacturer Yokohama and German electronics company Siemens.

The advantage of this strategy is that it reduces costs related to translating between different languages, such as no longer needing to hire a small army of translators.

The odds are that if a team with people in many different countries communicates in one language today, that language will be English. It’s the language of business, finance, diplomacy, and more. Finally, it’s the only language people from different countries can speak at even a rudimentary level.

If you do business globally, your company should weigh up the costs and benefits of making English its official language. A strategy like this will have many bumps in the road at the outset, such as the cost of English classes and resistance from employees, but it could improve coordination among global teams in the long run.

Even adopting this strategy at the team level could help teams work more closely together, reducing the time it takes to bring their products or ideas to the rest of the company, and maybe even share some inside jokes that nobody else in your organization will understand!

I can speak English, but I still can’t understand my colleagues!

Now, before you native English speakers smugly rest on your laurels, realize that you have to put in just as much effort in making your communications clear, if not more, than your colleagues.

Spoken English from certain regions where it’s the native language can be unintelligible to non-native speakers, and even to other native speakers as well. Frequently, international teams cannot understand their English-speaking colleagues.

But, relax! It’s easy to improve communication with teams by merely being respectful of the language barriers that are present and making some small changes to work around them.

  • Speak slowly

    • In any language, what is a typical pace of speech for a native speaker sounds fast for non-native speakers. So, slow down. But, don’t speak unnaturally slow or worse, talk to them like children. Speak at the speed you would if you were giving a presentation to an audience.

  • Write simply

    • It can be tempting to use complicated words when writing. After all, how else will you show how smart you are? The thing is, this doesn’t work. Trying to dazzle your audience with your Scrabble-worthy vocabulary will just leave them confused, and increase the chances of miscommunication.

    • So, write using simple words. Phrase things as if you were explaining them to someone completely unfamiliar with the topic at hand. This will force you to use more basic vocabulary that will be widely understood.

    • Don’t have award-winning writing skills? Don’t worry; there’s an app for that! Tools like Grammarly will help you catch any spelling and punctuation mistakes. Also, the Hemingway editor can help make your writing clearer by highlighting complex sentences that you should simplify.

  • Leave culture-specific references at home

    • Don’t use references, slang, or idioms specific to your country’s culture. These often require lots of historical and cultural background to be fully understood, background that even an advanced non-native English speaker will not have.

    • For example, If a colleague does a good job on a task, tell them just that; that they did a good job. Don’t tell them that they “hit it out of the park.” Someone unfamiliar with the game of baseball wouldn’t get that phrase’s meaning.

    • This goes for abbreviations as well. For example, a native English speaker will know that “ETA” means “estimated time of arrival”, but for someone from Spain “ETA” is the abbreviation for a Basque terrorist organization. As you can imagine, saying that to a Spaniard could lead to some awkward moments.

    • For abbreviations related to technical terms, spell out all the words the acronym is derived from the first time you use it and then put the acronym in parentheses next to it, or say it afterward. Then, use the abbreviation in the rest of your communications.

    • The only exception is if you are entirely sure that everyone listening to or reading your message will get the abbreviation, such as when you refer to it for the 200th time in a series of emails between you and a colleague.

Better communication, better product

The language barrier doesn’t have to be so daunting. With some forethought and policy changes, that barrier can be broken down. You and your team can have quicker, more precise communication that will allow you to work faster, beat the competition, and increase your value!

Effective communication is one of the most important things a business can have. Because of this, good communication skills should be something to look for in potential hires when you’re building your next team. DistantJob can help you find the right people to make you and your team stand out from the rest. Find out more about how we can bring the right people to you.

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Andrew Bryant

Andrew Bryant

I help others achieve incredible things by harnessing the power of data. When I'm not solving coding problems I'm reading, exercising, sleeping, watching food shows on Netflix, or finding the best cup of coffee in Santiago.

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