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Communicating with Coworkers Who Don’t Speak Your Language

Communicating with coworkers who don't speak your language.

Source: Stockphoto.com O#20443 - ID#100114763408

Communication is an integral part of any thriving society, it is how we express feelings and cultivate relationships. However, communication at home or at work can be very difficult for some people, and when you add a language/ culture barrier there are even more things that can go wrong. There are thousands of languages in the world, and in your lifetime you have probably met a wide assortment of people who did not speak your language. When you’re working with someone who speaks a different language there are many creative ways to communicate with them that will make collaboration and teamwork easier. Here are a few tips to help business communication go smoother for all parties involved.

Find Some Common Ground

Try to feel out how many words and phrases the other person knows in your language and vice versa. Use those to begin communications. It does not matter if the conversation is very simple, it is a start. Try to avoid the use of any slang words; using slang could lead to a lot of confusion or even offense if the person takes the slang term literally. Remember to speak clearly, loudly, and slowly. You will appreciate the same from them when they attempt to respond in their language. If you’re working with this person on a daily basis, try to use the same words over and over again. Don’t get fancy with your wording because learning a new language takes time and a lot of effort. As soon as you or the other person shows signs of improvement in the new language, then you can start using more complex sentences and challenging words. Using the same words that you both understand will help you communicate, but using the same word over and over that you don’t understand will not help. For example, if your coworker does not know the word for “peach” saying peach over and over again is not going to help them understand what it is. They will not have a Eureka! Moment and suddenly a new idea will pop into their head. Instead, grab a peach and point to it and say the name again. If you can’t find the object or it is an abstract concept, consider explaining the word in a simple definition they will understand.

2. Actively Listen

Listening to someone speak in a foreign language can be very confusing. If you know a few words, trying to translate them in your brain can take a great deal of effort. Try to make that effort and hopefully the person you are speaking back to is doing the same. Look out for confusion on their faces or nonverbal body movements that express perplexity. Most people say “huh” when they are confused no matter where they’re from. Others will shrug their shoulders or raise their eyebrows. If someone is trying to explain something to you in their language, try to learn the phrase for “I don’t understand” in their language so you can let them know they need to explain it differently.

3. Write It Down

Some people may understand a language on paper better than they can understand it while it is being spoken, especially since accents differ greatly among many languages. If someone has studied a language in school, for example, they probably have a lot more experience reading the language instead of speaking it. If you know that you’re going to be speaking with someone who does not speak your language, consider bringing a small notepad with you when you go to see them. If the person will not recognize a word even if you write it down, try drawing it. If you’re not much of an artist, Google the word on your phone and pull up images to show them.

coworkers communicating in different languages.
Source: Stockphoto.com O#20443 – ID#100092592016

4. Be A Mime

Not literally of course, but acting out what you are trying to convey can be very helpful since you are unable to use your words. For example, if you need to let this coworker know that it is time for lunch, mime having a plate and spooning food into your mouth. You can also rub your stomach to let them know you are hungry. Gestures can be helpful as well. For example, lifting up four fingers will let them know that the meeting is at 4 pm, or that you need 4 copies of a certain document, it all depends on the context of your conversation. Just keep in mind that not all gestures mean the same thing throughout the world. In some countries, certain American gestures are considered rude.

5. Get a Helpful Translator

If your company has recently brought in new employees from another country, or you have been hired into a company that works across different time zones or countries, it is a great idea to download some translation apps on your cell phone. You can use Google Translate right from your phone’s internet browser or you can peruse the app site for something to have readily on your phone. A few apps to consider downloading on your iPhone or Android device include iTranslate, TripLingo, SayHi, Voice Translator Free (Android only), and iHandy (iPhone only). If you don’t want to have your phone out all the time consider purchasing a language dictionary. Leave the dictionary in your desk and bring it along with you when you know you’re about to have a conversation with the coworker who doesn’t speak your language.

Overcoming a language barrier is not impossible. It is important to continue at it and not get frustrated with yourself or the other party. Remaining as professional as possible when speaking to any coworker is very important, so don’t forget these rules still apply to someone that doesn’t know your language. Respect the person who has come into your office with a language barrier, do not make them feel bad for not understanding a foreign language overnight. They are clearly at your job because they want to work and therefore they deserve to be treated with dignity. If it is you who is on the other side, you’d most appreciate this treatment returned to you.

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