How to Handle Language Barriers in the Workplace

Using visual aids can help combat language issues in a company.
Using visual aids can help combat language issues in a company. (Image: IT Stock/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

People from dozens of countries call America home. That, coupled with the global workplace, leads to language barriers. Management must address language issues proactively, giving employees the opportunity to improve communications on the individual and group level. Overcoming these barriers can take time, but doing so can result in increased morale and camaraderie, as well as better efficiency and higher revenue. It also gives companies greater flexibility in terms of whom they hire and to whom they market.

Identify the types of language barriers and whom they impact. For instance, determine whether the barriers are due to excessive jargon in the same language, hearing difficulties, speech impediments, or a lack of vocabulary in a foreign language. Figure out through surveys, observation and similar techniques whether the problem is limited to certain groups, one person, or a particular level in the company.

Practice adjusting your speech to the employees to whom you address. For instance, sometimes miscommunication happens because workers are not able to mentally and quickly translate from the language they're hearing to their native language. Slow down and pronounce your words clearly. Summarize at the end of your speeches and reiterate what you hear.

Keep your conversations and written communications concise, substituting lengthy text for pictorial representations. Don't use jargon if you can avoid it. If you must use jargon because a concept is so ingrained in the business, explain the jargon and give an equivalent word or phrase in the second language. You may need to discuss the cultural differences connected to the jargon, as well.

Provide opportunities for all workers to take classes or other training in a second language.

Hire an interpreter. Although the interpreter need not be present at all functions, the interpreter should attend all major meetings, particularly those that focus on policy changes.

Present documentation in both the dominant language and the sub-dominant language. For example, issue your employee handbook in both English and Spanish. Your translator should be able to help with this.

Ask questions. Doing this doesn't just show you want clarification and don't quite understand. It also shows you are interested in the person or group to whom you are speaking, and that you're willing to make some effort to unify. This can build rapport as you learn the language.

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