Although this phrase seems foreign to us, it is actually quite common... it's one of misunderstanding. We face language barriers everyday. Maybe not with Mandarin Chinese to English, but from different languages or even to simply different accents or vocabulary your diverse work force is struggling through miscommunication after miscommunication. According to the study "The Impact of Language Barriers on Trust Formation in Multinational Teams", by Helene Tenzer, Markus Pudelko, and Anne-Wil Harzing explains that even simple errors and misinterpretations can lead members of the team and company to believe a certain employee is incompetent. Clearly, this shows how important we perceive language to be - something that can prove if you have knowledge in another unrelated area. However, this is just a perception, not the truth - you could be completely illiterate and yet be a great at another unrelated skill.
Society has placed upon us the need for language, and the corporate world has stressed its importance even more. If you are unable to present yourself in a professional well spoken manner you are perceived to be sloppy or too casual which when generalized is applied to your entire career instead of just your language abilities.
I started to realize this on a personal level that my colleagues perceived me as having less ability in my job due to my language barrier. Instead of just presuming I could efficiently do my job correctly even though I had difficulty expressing myself in their native language they believed due to my incompetence in their language I must be incompetent in other areas such as my job duties (however unrelated). In relation to corporate social responsibility this lead me to believe that if a company intentionally employs people who are diverse and have different language levels there should be some methods to implement to assure that all employees are able to work as a team instead of being separated by the wall of language.
I would like to provide some of my suggestions of what companies could do to be socially responsible when it comes down to their employees and their language.
- This doesn't necessarily mean buying Rosetta Stone for everyone in your company that doesn't speak the language fluently, nor does it mean that you need to hire an expensive personal tutor either. Simple lessons are helpful enough to someone working hard and trying their best to communicate with the company language. A simple gesture of creating something like a photo dictionary of key words or a general explanation of the company lingo will help quickly improve the communication through the language barrier.
- Although it may be difficult to find employees who speak more than one language, if your aim is to be diverse - this is one way to alleviate tension between coworkers. People who speak only one language have a difficult time relating to how difficult it is to learn a language fluently with all of the nuances of grammar and specific vocabulary. This could possibly create problems when there are misunderstandings due to language as they might expect the colleague to be more advanced in the language or might also wrongly assume that they don't understand the job if they aren't able to express themselves clearly in the language. Multilingual would not only understand the difficulty of learning a language but they would be able to help the non-native speaker to feel more comfortable and reassure them.
- If hiring multilingual's is too difficult, another option would be to create an incentive to learning a second language so that everyone can experience what it is like to not be able to fully communicate. Moreover, adding a second language to the companies repertoire of skills benefits the business as well as the employees cognitive well-being.
Allow the Employee to Teach Their Language
- Sometimes a word or an idea just doesn't exist in another language. It might be very frustrating to someone who doesn't speak the company language perfectly to express themselves when they are missing key vocabulary. One way to avoid this unnecessary frustration is allow specific moments for the non-native speaker to teach their language as well so that the whole office can benefit and be more international. This creates comfort for the employee as well as increases other employees interest into learning other cultures and being more accepting in general.
Avoid "Professional" Flowery Language and Speak Clearly
- Nothing stops language learning more than over-complicated unnecessarily flowery vocabulary. Speaking clearly and explaining ideas thoroughly alleviates much of this problem. Speaking clearly doesn't just entail enunciating your words, but it also includes avoiding complicated vocabulary and not using idioms to express ideas.
- If an employee doesn't understand a specific word, try to explain what the word means. For example if they don't understand the word "robber" instead explain more clearly that it is someone who steals/ takes something that doesn't belong to them. Not only will this reinforce the new word but it allows the time for the employee to understand better what you are talking about.
Use Gestures and Body Language
- Body language experts have come to a consensus that about 50-80% of our communication is through gestures and expressions. This is perfect for those who are managing or working with someone who has difficulty expressing themselves clearly through the company language; it helps both parties. It helps you because you will be able to communicate more clearly if you use specific facial expressions or gestures to explain what you want or communicate a general message. Also it helps the employee because in case they have said something they might not have meant you will be able to tell by their facial expression and non-verbal communication that they meant something different and you can clarify to avoid miscommunication which could lead to more serious issues.
Be Patient With Non-native Speakers
- Patience is the key when dealing with communication problems, on both sides. The learner needs patience when receiving feed back as well you when you are trying to teach the proper way to communicate in the company. The language learning process is a trying one, full of mistakes and blunders. If one can be patient through this it will give the language learner all the more confidence to try and communicate without having to fear the repercussions for making a simple mistake. This will not only speed up the language learning process but it will also build a relationship based off of trust. It will allow you to see through the language barrier and realize that the employee doesn't lack skills - they might even do the job the best. With patience you can see the problem for what it is - a language difference, nothing more.
With all of this taken into consideration, I hope that companies can act in a more caring and understanding way to those who are struggling to express themselves. Your mother tongue is always going to be the most comfortable, however companies shouldn't put more discomfort and pressure than there already is on learning a language. There is always more that can be learned and more that can be done to ensure that the corporate culture is satisfactory for all who are employed.