How to Break Down Language Barriers in Your International Dev Team

break down language barrier dev teams

Do you know how frustrating it is when you can’t find your favorite shirt? You ask your roommates, and the answer usually is ‘in the same place as usual’ or ‘in the closet over there’ – which closet? After spending half of an hour trying to understand what your roommates mean, you finally find your shirt. And a question arises in your mind: how is it possible that people living in the same house cannot communicate properly? How to break down the language barrier?

Likewise, working in virtual teams, you soon realize that speaking the same language isn’t enough to understand each other. And, more often than you expected, you have to repeat yourself. Virtual teams are more common after the 2020 pandemic, but language barriers are still something managers should keep into account. 

Dev teams are usually multicultural and distributed worldwide, but that’s not the only challenge. Working on development projects, engineers deal with complex issues and often cooperate with other departments like marketing or sales. Especially for virtual teams, communication is essential for productive teamwork. How to ensure effective communication and break down language barriers?

What Is A Language Barrier In Remote Dev Teams?

In distributed teams, most communication is asynchronous aside from video calls. The first language barrier to break down in dev teams is in virtual team correspondence. Often, sentence structure and confusion in the use of words lead to misunderstandings that slow down team productivity. 

Secondly, remote teams face language challenges in the project documentation and produce quality work with team members speaking another language.  

For non-native speakers, it can be hard to read and write quickly, which can lead to substantial delays in progressing work and additional time to edit and interpret documents. The impact of language barriers can lead to frustration, delays, and tension between team members.

How To Identify Language Barriers in Dev Teams?

Language barriers can happen in any team, everywhere. As we mentioned initially, speaking the same language or living in the same place isn’t a guarantee for effective communication. 

The point isn’t how to make the challenge disappear, but how to break down language barriers in your dev teams to improve productivity. The real question is whether a team member struggles with real communication barriers or language is an excuse to do less work.

In a remote dev team, people come from different countries and cultural backgrounds. Especially during the onboarding process, it takes a while to adjust and structure internal team communication. In the beginning, promote neutral English and avoid jargon or weird expressions across teams. For example, people from Texas or Scotland are hard to follow even for native speakers. Just remember your team that some expressions aren’t universal and that jargon isn’t always the quickest way to express a concept. There is no point in pushing informal language if your marketing doesn’t understand what your dev team is doing and vice-versa. 

When you align team members and help them be on the same page, you will see who is actually struggling with communication issues and those using the language as an excuse.

Tips To Break Down Language Barriers For Your Dev Team

1. Provide English Classes And Grammar Tools

The first thing to level up the fluency level of your dev team is providing English classes. You can provide a private tutoring scheme for your company or sign your developers up for an English as a Foreign Language course (EFL). 

Providing a specific course based on the company’s needs is the quickest way to address the areas of competence vital for you. In addition, you can offer further studies to help your team improve writing and presentation skills. As support of English classes, provide tools like Grammarly to autonomously improve grammar while achieving a better language command. 

Offering classes is important to ensure clear communication and let your employees acquire better skills that will help them grow in your company. This way you will improve internal communication and make your virtual team engaged.

2. Training and Onboarding

If you are running an international company, you can provide translation and interpretation services regarding legal matters and agreements. Secondly, you can translate the onboarding material to make sure to illustrate internal procedures clearly. This method, however, works only as a support for new hires. It’s important to combine translated material with English training. 

3. Visual Communication

Another strategy to break down language barriers is using visual communication strategies. Combine text to pictures and interactive design to highlight priorities and instruction manuals. Supporting text and procedures with graphic material will help your team familiarize themselves with the project and other departments.  

4. Team Up Native Speakers And Foreign For Casual Conversation

In virtual teams, moments for casual conversation are essential to improve team dynamics. To enhance communication levels, rather than teaming up people speaking the same language, you can combine foreign and native speakers instead. For example, Slack features like Donut pair up random people in the company. Or you can organize coffee chats during the week to leave room for casual conversation among team members. Speaking in English besides working tasks is a way to improve the confidence and vocabulary of non-native speakers in your team. 

 5. Speak Slowly And Clearly 

Sometimes, native speakers don’t realize the speed of their conversations. Remember to your colleagues (and yourself) that it is better to slow down and avoid colloquialism in the beginning. When speaking, pay attention to non-verbal responses, like frowns or nods, to prevent non-understanding.

6. Don’t Assume They Understand What You Say 

Making assumptions is never a good strategy. So, never assume that people understand what you are saying. Especially if you don’t feel confident with the language, asking questions can be intimidating in the beginning. Always push for questions and re-demonstrate the crucial steps of the project. For example, if one of your dev is new to remote work, spend extra time to explain tools and procedures. It might feel like a waste of time, but in the long run, will make the job easier for the whole team.

How To Deal With Language Barriers As a Team Leader

Speak Clearly and Concisely 

As we mentioned, everyone in the team needs to remember to speak slowly – starting from you. When you are getting to know your colleagues, use simple vocabulary and give clear announcements. Prioritize transparency and clarity over details and specifications. Of course, the goal is to help each team member to improve their language levels. However, improving a language is an ongoing process, and overcomplicating discourses won’t help in the beginning. 

Sarcasm And Humour

Humor and sarcasm, when it comes to international teams, are a slippery slope. It can be a strategy to make your team cohesive or it can create misunderstandings. In these cases, you always have to keep in mind cultural differences and sensibilities. Humor on cultural stereotypes can work with some people, but not with everyone. If you use humor to build company culture, have a clear policy on it. Everyone can make jokes, but as soon as someone feels offended, the joke will be removed, and the person will apologize. 

Don’t Be Offended By Non-English Speakers 

So, humor doesn’t always work. And sometimes non-native speakers have improper use of the English language that be offensive. There is no reason to take any sentence personally. Intonation, vocabulary, and humor vary depending on the country. If you notice that a certain way of speaking is offensive, you can politely explain the correct use of language and avoid misunderstanding. 

Follow Up With Written Communication

As a team leader, you can send a report to recap video calls and meetings. Usually, people are more likely to remember things when they can read them. Sending detailed and grammatically notifications or emails will help your team to visualize your goals and expectations better.

Prevent Language Barriers by Hiring The Best Remote Dev Team

To recap, distributed teams will always face language issues. But breaking down language barriers in your dev team isn’t impossible. It requires time and effort, and attention to your team members’ sensibility and skills. If you provide team activities, English classes, and written documentation, language barriers will become a bridge to create stronger connections with team members in the long run.

Just remember, as always, everything starts from the hiring process. Hiring the right developers who speak fluent English for your international team is the best strategy to prevent language barriers. However, when you select a candidate, don’t just focus on the technical skills and language proficiency. As we mentioned earlier, speaking the same language doesn’t mean being on the same page.

Always look for someone that works well with your team first. And if you need an expert eye to select the best candidates for your project, contact us! We are a remote recruitment agency with an obsession with finding the best global tech talent. Our sourcers can find you the best remote candidate and our HR team will take care of everything for you – language barriers won’t stop us! 

language barrier dev teams

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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.