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Communicating Effectively: Building Bridges over Language Barriers in the Workplace

As our country’s workforce changes to include an increasing number of internationally trained professionals, so does the need to communicate across language barriers in the workplace. Are you faced with the challenge of communicating with colleagues or employees whose English is limited? This challenge can be frustrating, often leading to a fractured and less productive workplace. Here are some simple tips to help you improve your communication with non-native English speakers:

1. Speak clearly

The simplest way to help a non-native English speaker understand you better is to improve the clarity of yourspeech. This is best achieved by focusing on enunciation.

  • Try to pronounce your words and syllables clearly and distinctly.
  • Avoid slurring words together.  “What did you say” is much easier to understand than “Whudjuhsay?”
  • Slow down a little (especially if you’re a naturally fast talker), but not to the point where it is completely unnatural.  Keep the speed and flow to your language as natural as is possible without sacrificing clarity.
  • Resist the tendency to increase the volume of your voice in order to improve clarity.

2. Mind your language

To successfully communicate across a language barrier you must also be very mindful of the words and sentence structures you are using. It is almost always necessary to adjust your language to some degree and this takes conscious effort. Don’t just focus on what you have to say; focus on saying it in a way that your colleagues can understand.

  • Try to avoid slang, jargon and idioms; your words may be understood, but the meaning missed.
  • Avoid words that may be misunderstood, choosing simpler ones with the same meaning instead.
  • Be concrete, asking specifically for what you want. Instead of saying “I wanted to see if we might be able to start a little earlier and get a good jump on things”, try “Can we meet earlier tomorrow so that we can have more time to get this done?”
  • Avoid negative questions, such as “Are you not coming?”
  • Avoid double questions, such as “Do you want me to wait or shall I go ahead?”
  • Use the active rather than passive voice, saying “Please send me that report”, instead of “That report needs to be sent to me.”

3. Simplify

Too much information that is poorly organized can be counterproductive in any situation, but it is especially challenging for a non-native English speaker. Take the time to consider what it is you want to communicate, why you want to communicate this and how you can do it in the clearest possible way.

  • Organize your thoughts so that your communication has a logical flow to it and can easily be followed.
  • Stick to one subject at a time.
  • Beware of lengthy, abstract explanations.
  • Break complex instructions down step by step.

4. Check for understanding

George Bernard Shaw said, “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” When communicating across cultural and language barriers, we can never assume full understanding; we must confirm it.

  • Don’t ask “Do you understand?” to confirm meaning as the answer may be ‘yes’ even if it is “no”; ask specific questions instead.
  • Ask the listener to summarize or rephrase what has been said.
  • Watch for non-verbal responses that might indicate a lack of understanding.
  • To check your own understanding of what has been communicated to you, repeat what you have heard in your own words and ask if you have heard correctly.
  • If spoken communication is not working well, make use of body language (gestures and facial expressions) or a paper and pen, spelling out words that might be misunderstood due to pronunciation issues.

5. Be supportive

English is a complex language and non-native English speakers must often make  a great and constant effort to understand and be understood.  When they are not successful in this, they may feel inadequate and powerless; feelings that can interfere with their job performance and satisfaction. A patient, understanding employer can go a long way toward preventing or relieving such feelings.

  • Communicate with compassion, trying to put your self in the other’s position.
  • Give encouragement, which will increase people’s confidence and comfort level in communicating with you.
  • Take turns (make a point and then listen to the response). Use pauses often when communicating, allowing time for the listener to digest what you have said and form responses.
  • Plan on taking a little extra time for confirming understandings.
  • Share responsibility for poor communication. Saying “I’m sorry it’s taking me so long to understand” takes the pressure off the speaker.
  • Take the time to listen and understand; Good communication is as much about listening as it is about speaking.

Communicating across language barriers in the workplace is not easy, but you do not have to settle for a communication gap. Build bridges by communicating as clearly as possible, checking for comprehension and doing your best to understand and encourage. By doing these things, you will be developing stronger, more successful work relationships with your colleagues, bringing them and your company that much closer to reaching their full potential.