Managing Across Language Barriers

Whenever I have lead a team or a project, I’ve always valued and tried to practice good communication.  I believe that a team with good communication sets themselves up for success, regardless of the task.  But what happens when not everyone speaks the same language?  So far in my young career I’ve had the privilege of leading some very talented multilingual groups, and through the challenges and success we encountered I’ve learned that good communication does not have to stop at a language barrier, so to speak.  Language barriers can be tricky and discouraging at first, so I would like to offer some of my perspective in how to find success in managing across language barriers.

Multilingual workplaces and language barriers

I have been a part of many diverse teams.  I have worked in both the U.S. and Germany, and although English has been the primary language for all of these jobs, most of these teams included a significantly sized group of non-native English speakers, or just non-English speakers.  Almost every job or project I’ve been involved with in the U.S. has included some very talented Spanish-speaking team members.  In the groups I lead over in Germany, the teams were much more diverse and multilingual.  I was directly responsible for workers who spoke German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Turkish, Catalan, French, and even Tigrinya (a native African dialect spoken in Eritrea), with all of these non-English speakers having varying levels of English ability ranging from extremely limited to almost fluent.

The presence of a language barrier in just a bilingual group already presents new challenges and a need for focus on communication, but what happens when you’re leading a very multilingual group?  I myself speak fluent English, German and Spanish, but what happens when one of my team members doesn’t speak one or any of those three languages well?  What happened when I’m suddenly in charge of three gentlemen who only speak an obscure African language, and only know how to ask for cigarettes or the bathroom in English or German?  I’ve learned a few things by reflecting on this.  First off, not all language barriers are equal.  Sometimes words, sayings, and body language can traverse certain language barriers more easily than others.  It is important to stay patient, because speakers of one language may be able to communicate or receive a message more quickly than speakers of another, but that should never reflect upon their capability.  Your mother tongue is your comfort zone, and a language barrier can inherently make you less comfortable sharing what’s on your mind.  Secondly, managing across multiple language barriers is an added challenge, because then you have multiple people trying to find common grounds for communication between multiple languages, so you have to focus on making your message receivable to all groups, not just one other.  The idea of this may sound daunting, but I believe that if you can move past the confusion of having multiple languages at play and focus on principals of good communication, then you can begin to mitigate the process of managing across language barriers.


My team spoke 8 different languages, and we built a kindergarten in two weeks


Effective communication

To give it a basic definition, communication is just the sending and receiving of messages.  Whether it’s one or multiple languages, the important part is that someone gets the point across.  When you think about communication in that regard, it should take away some of the anxiety that a language barrier can cause; all that matters is that both sides reach an understanding.   Let’s say for example that I needed a non-English speaking teammate to fix a microwave, but I don’t know the word for that in his language and he doesn’t know the word in mine.  The word ‘microwave’ itself doesn’t actually matter here; I can use other, more simple words to try to describe what I’m talking about, or even use body language and/or physically show my colleague what I’m talking about.  Let’s say that a colleague is trying to report something that happened to them, but the way they say it is not the ‘normal’ way you would say something in my language.  Rather than correcting them or worrying too much about how things are supposed to be said, if the task was taken care of then the language doesn’t matter.  It is important to find middle ground semantically, and to aim for a collective understanding of a task or issue, regardless of whether that issue was communicated in a way that’s typical to any one language.  Although words and phrases differ greatly between languages, reaching an understanding is universal.  You might have to adjust your preferred word choice, pace, or phrasing, but it is worth it.

Whether you’re a part of a team that only speaks one languages or a team that speaks 20 languages, practicing good principles of communication will always bolster success.  Speaking with a positive and encouraging tone transcends any language barrier, as people can always sense patience and aggression.   Confirming that your colleague understood what you said and repeating anything that was unclear is always a good practice.  Smiling, making eye contact, and having good or enthusiastic body  language can encourage speakers of any language.  Learning how to speak to or work  most effectively with team members on an individual basis can always make things more smooth.  What I’ve noticed, however, is that sometimes in a monolingual group these practices can fall by the wayside, likely because we are more comfortable in our mother tongue.  Language barriers can put all parties involved out of their comfort zone, but I believe that it only takes a little effort to overcome.  When managing across language barriers, if you focus on the basics of “what makes effective communication?” and not distract yourself with the anxiety of not knowing someone else’s language, you will find that you can still communicate successfully.

There are hundreds of different languages in this world, and although most of us only speak one or a couple of them, I believe that good communication transcends all languages.  Regardless of the dialects we speak, good communication is a language of its own, and is something we can all practice.  If you have the opportunity to lead a group that speaks many different languages, focus on finding ways to communicate your message that might not be conventional.  Every team member’s perspective should matter equally, even if gaining that perspective requires a bit of added effort and patience in regards to communication.  If you’re leading a multilingual group, you should consider your group’s overall ability to communicate as a direct reflection of your leadership.  Language barriers will always exist, so if you find yourself in a situation where you’re managing across language barriers, just stay patient, focus on the meaning of messages vs. the way you might normally say it, and encourage your team to always try their best to share their perspectives.

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