Best Practices in HR

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Elliott Jeter
  May 20, 2019

Tricks To Conquer Language Barriers In Your Next Meeting

Conducting international business is an intensive process of sourcing materials, clients, and partners from all corners of the globe. Above all else, it means collaborating and meeting with people of many different cultures and languages. Even when there’s an official language for your industry, company, or workplace, there still can be meeting miscommunications that happen due to a language barrier. Negotiating language barriers in meetings can be tough, so we’ve compiled some tips to make sure you’re navigating those challenges as efficiently as possible!


1. Know your audience

This one is at the top because it’s hands-down the most important tip on this whole list. Without knowing the extent of your language barrier, it’s impossible to know which of the things on this list will be helpful or necessary for your specific situation. Make sure you know who you’ll be speaking to and gather as much information about their language proficiency as possible. How well written are emails and other pre-meeting correspondence? Are they using a different, more traditional spelling of their name? Who else is involved in the pre-meeting conversations? Keep notes if you need to.

2. Language training

Depending on how much collaboration you plan on doing with the other party’s language or culture, you might want to implement formal language training for your employees who will regularly be attending meetings. When you and your team commit to learning your business partner’s language, you’re showing that you’re committed to the relationship and are planning to be there for the long haul.

3. Learn the basics

Even if you don’t go the full, formal course route, try to learn the basics of the other party’s language. Even greetings and common words can go a long way towards building a meaningful relationship with a team that speaks another language. Showing up to a meeting able to use correct cultural name pronunciations, formal and informal greetings, and common words shows that you respect the other party’s culture and that you’re committed to your joint project.

4. Get a translator

Sometimes, extensive language education just isn’t feasible for one reason or another (be it financial restrictions, time constraints, or something else). Even if your team does have access to language education, it takes a long time to be proficient enough for breakdown-free communication. Hiring a translator to assist is a great way to ensure your meeting runs as smoothly as possible.

During the meeting

5. Keep things simple

When working with another team whose first language isn’t your own, keeping things simple is absolutely crucial. Leave your thesaurus at home. You’ll want to be sure you’re using the most straightforward words that you can. Sometimes that means using more words. Whatever it takes to simplify the message. Also, be sure you avoid idioms, jargon, and slang that might be confusing or not translate well.

6. Repeat, repeat, repeat

Even in meetings where everyone is speaking the same language, repetition is key to ensuring your audience retains the information you’re communicating. However, in a language barrier situation, repeating the important elements also helps during initial comprehension. As the listener in a foreign language situation, we often listen for key words to help us put together the meaning of a sentence. In some cases, this fixation on keywords we know can lead to some of the others being tuned out by mistake. By repeating the sentence, the listener gets a second shot at decoding words missed during the first time around.

7. Use gestures and visuals

Many of the hand gestures used during speech are universal around the world. Yes, we mean things like “ ” or “ ” but these universal nonverbal cues can also be more abstract too. Imagine you’re describing a scene where you’re pushing open a door. Using hand gestures to recreate that action of pushing open the door you’re describing is incredibly helpful for listeners who might not know or be able to put together the words quickly enough. Visual aids like videos and images can also help span language barriers.

Language is a complex beast no matter where you are, but nowhere else is it more important than in our collaboration spaces. The tips above will make your inter-lingual experience easier. However, breakdowns can still happen. When all else fails, remember to slow down and ask questions. Making sure everyone has the right information is always the priority.

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