Overcome language barriers in global business
by Eleonore Breukel – www.intercultural.nl
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 a cross-cultural language and its various communication styles?
Skills, expertise and knowledge remain hidden in global organizations because of language and cultural barriers. Native speakers of Spanish, German, Dutch, Turkish, Chinese, or Bahasa, make a daily effort to understand, speak, and write English. Both native and non-native English speakers try to understand the many variants of English in their organizations. Together we attempt to get used to each other’s accents and accept the language mistakes inevitably made in English. We try to figure out what a proper translation would be for a particular expression and how the words are to be interpreted and valued in our native language. We get lost in translation!
Although native English speakers patiently listen how non-native speakers demolish their language and still praise them on their command of English, they remain dominant in the meetings room. Are they aware of the difficulties non-native speakers face and, how this affects their feelings and the dynamics of a conversation?
They often judge the skills and expertise of a non-native English speaker by the inferior command of their English!
International presentations and discussions
During presentations at business meetings, non-native speakers usually take more time to make their point in the global language. Their performances may not be smooth and exciting since they’re often searching for the right words. Words with impact, words that sell their new project to the management.
As the speakers searches for words, he fills this gaps with saying ‘uhmmm’ , 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 the topic, as their English vocabulary is too limited for an intellectual debate. Or, they try to memorize the English words the native English speakers use in the discussion, to be able to reproduce those words when it is their turn to speak. In the meantime, they lose track of the thread of the conversation.
That 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 the non-native English speaker is capable enough for the job judging by his fluency of the English language.
What can both native- and non-native English speakers do?
- Observe if people frown or squeeze their eyes. It is often body language for not understanding a speaker.
- Ask once, twice or even three times in case you do not understand what is said.
- Ask questions frequently to know if the conversation or presentation is understood.
- Summarize often or ask others to summarize for you.
- Invite non-native English speakers to participate in the conversation and reassure them that if the language is a problem, you can help.
- Native English speakers; avoid proverbs, expressions, metaphors, slang, jargon, and abbreviations.
- Non-native English speakers; avoid translating proverbs, metaphors, or jokes from your native language into the English language.
Writing online On the internet, there are no facial expressions, gestures, or other non-verbal cues, which makes communication in the global language even more complicated.
During a serious ‘written’ virtual discussion, the non-native English speaker needs to check his English for mistakes, before pushing the ‘send’ key. He does not want to lose face in front of three, or maybe 25 people who may read his text. As in verbal discussions, the thinking process is delayed due to the search for the correct words.
Consequently, native English speakers tend to dominate on the internet in the same way they dominate the meeting room.
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: http://translate.google.com or http://www.freetranslation.com. It is far from perfect, but it helps.
- Both native and non-native English speakers ask questions if you do not understand.
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 meaning as the same word in Guiana which is also an English-speaking country. The word ‘first floor’ is the ‘ground floor’ in one country but you need to climb the stairs to get there in another country.
Likewise, the word ‘assertiveness’ varies according to the cultural values of the respective countries. In the Netherlands, the word ‘assertiveness’ has a very positive connotation, while the same concept in Vietnam or China is a negative one.
What can you do?
Make sure that you thoroughly discuss the cultural interpretation of words when you have important conversations. It may safe you a lot of money.
Even if English is the global language of business, cultures maintain their ‘style’ of communicating. This frequently causes serious misunderstandings and irritations. Be aware that your communication style has an effect 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, as in Italy or India. In contrast, in other cultures, people limit themselves to the minimum number of words possible, as the Danish or the Dutch.
What can you do?
- Observe foreign talk-shows on tv and look at the verbal and non-verbal communication styles. Don’t worry if you understand the language or not.
- Watch foreign movies. 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 to deviate from the main subject and save details for later.
The best results are achieved when people from different cultural backgrounds – both native- and non-native English speakers – look for solutions together, in a way that everyone is understood and feels included.
© Eleonore Breukel
Intercultural Communication – Amsterdam – The Netherlands