Eleonore Breukel is the author of over 100 articles for various business magazines, newspapers and the virtual media.

She co-authored a book on how to do business in 19 countries across the world.

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Overcome language barriers in global business

How to overcome language barriers in global business byEleonore Breukel

Misunderstandings, irritations, feelings of exclusion and a sense of inferiority, are daily challenges for non-native English speakers trying to communicate in the language of global business. What exactly happens and how can global organizations help employees become more effective in this intercultural language and its various communication styles?

Vast amounts of skill, expertise and knowledge remains hidden in organizations because of language and cultural barriers. Native Spanish, German, Dutch, Turkish, Chinese or Bahasa Indonesia speakers all make a daily effort to understand, speak and write English. Native English speakers try to understand the many variants of non-native speakers.

Together we try to get used to each other’s accents and accept the language mistakes inevitably made. We try to figure out what a good translation would be for a particular expression and how the words are to be interpreted and valued in our own language. We get lost in translation.

On many occasions the native English speakers form the majority at international meetings. They patiently watch how non-native speakers demolish their native language and still praise them on their command of English. Are native English speakers aware of the difficulties non-native speakers face and how this affects their feelings and the dynamics of a discussion or debate?

International presentations and discussions
During presentations at business meetings non-native speakers usually take more time to make their point. Their presentations may not be smooth and exiting since they’re often searching for the right words to use. Words with impact, words that sell their new project to the management. Searching for words causes many ‘umm’s in the speaker’s presentation, which distracts the listener.

Non-native English speakers may have a lot of expertise on a particular subject but may decide not to take part in discussions on it, as their English vocabulary is too limited for a fast intellectual debate. Or they try to memorize the English words the native English speakers use during the discussion, to be able to reproduce those words when it is their turn to speak. In the meantime they loose track of the thread of the discussion or debate.

This has a psychological effect on the non-native as well as native English speakers present in the meeting room. The non-native English speaker often feels inferior and excluded, while the native English speaker wonders if he is capable enough for the job.

What can both native- and non-native English speakers do?

  • Observe if people frown or squeeze their eyes. This is often body language for not understanding a speaker.
  • Ask once, twice or even three times if you do not understand.
  • Ask questions frequently in order to know if that what is discussed is also understood.
  • Summarize often or ask others to summarize for you.
  • Invite a non-native English speaker to participate in the discussion and reassure him that if the language is a problem you will help.
  • Native English speakers avoid proverbs, expressions, metaphors, slang, jargon and abbreviations.
  • Non-native English speaker avoid translating proverbs, metaphors or jokes from your own language into the English language.

The internet
On the internet there are no facial expressions, gestures, or other non-verbal cues, which makes communication even more complicated.

During a serious written virtual discussion, the non-native English speaker will
want to check his English for mistakes. After all he does not want to lose face in front of three - or maybe 30,000 - people who might read his text.

As with verbal discussion, the thinking process is delayed by the search for words and the attempt to memorize words used by previous writers. Consequently, native English people tend to dominate on the internet in the same way they might in meeting rooms.

What can you do?

  • If you are a non-native English speaker and you think you have something valuable to say, say it and try to explain and describe what you mean.
  • Use: or It is far from perfect but it helps.
  • Both native and non-native English speakers ask questions if you do not understand.

Cultural interpretations

As if translations weren’t complicated enough, a single word can have different cultural interpretations.

The word and concept ‘contract’ requires different actions in various cultures. In U.S. English it does not have the same substantive meaning as the same word in Guiana, also an English-speaking country. In Japanese, it carries a different meaning as well.

Likewise the word ‘assertiveness’ varies according to the cultural values of the respective countries. In the Netherlands this carries a very positive connotation, while the same concept in Vietnam is highly negative.

What can you do?

Make sure that you have thoroughly discussed the cultural interpretation of words before you start any collaboration.

Communication styles
Even if English is the global language of business, cultures maintain their own style of communicating. This frequently causes serious misunderstandings and irritations especially as we have no insight into our own communication style and the affect this has on people with a different cultural background.

Some may be offended by the directness of a foreign colleague while others find indirectness a cause for suspicion.

There are cultures where people need many words to express themselves, such as in Italy or in India, while in other cultures people limit themselves to the minimum number of words possible, such as the Danish or the Dutch.

What can you do?
  • Observe discussion programs on foreign television stations and look at the verbal and non-verbal communication style. Don’t worry if you understand the language or not.
  • Watch foreign movies. Pay attention to those produced and directed by the countries you work with. Movies make it possible to ‘participate’ in the culture while you watch. They inform you about how people live and communicate.
  • For those who are naturally direct, consider what impact your words may have before you speak.
  • For those needing many words to express themselves, try not deviate from the main subject and save details for later.

Best results
The best results are achieved when people from different cultural backgrounds – both native- and non-native English speakers - look for solutions together with the condition that everyone is understood and feels included.

© Eleonore Breukel
Intercultural Communication bv - Amsterdam - The Netherlands -