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How can I break down the language barriers in the workplace – Q&A

How can I break down the language barriers in the workplace – Q&A

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I have recently taken on a member of staff whose first language is not English and difficulties in communication have arisen as a result of this. They are a highly capable individual and I would like to see them perform to the best of their ability and believe this will be achieved through the breaking down of the language barrier. What are the best ways to approach this situation?

Having worked with many international colleagues over the years, I have developed a checklist of actions to help hurdle any language barrier within our workplace. Beware though. There is no quick fix. Any solution takes time. Fluency in another language is never an overnight matter.

  1. Be certain of their fluency levels.  How does your colleague perform at speaking, understanding speech, writing and understanding written text?
  2. Sign them up for an English as a Foreign Language course (EFL). This is vital and will address all four areas of competency highlighted, as necessary. In one company I worked at which was under foreign ownership, although based in UK, we had quite a cultural diversity working together. There, an HR and two other managers volunteered to train as teachers in EFL (or ESL – English as a Second Language) so language barriers could be broken down more speedily through relatively intensive training on-site.
  3. Team with a co-worker who speaks their language. If this is possible – brilliant! If not, team your new recruit with an open, friendly, patient English-speaking co-worker/mentor to help them adapt to the culture, the expectations and the particular vocabulary of your organisation.
  4. Ensure you and your colleagues speak clearly and slowly. It’s not all up to your new recruit. It’s up to you and all your colleagues to enunciate clearly, to consciously adjust your language to avoid jargon or colloquialism, to speak more slowly and to focus on communicating in a way your colleague can understand. When speaking, watch for non-verbal responses, such as frowns or downward glances, or even nods and smiles, that may indicate non-understanding.
  5. Don’t assume understanding.  Check for it. Counter-intuitively, if no questions are asked, it’s probably safe to assume your colleague has not understood you. So, don’t simply ask “Do you understand?”  (it’s too easy in a pressured situation to panic and say ‘yes’!) but ask your colleague to summarise what has just been said.
  6. Praise them for asking questions and admitting confusion. English is a complex language and non-native English speakers need patience, compassion, empathy, encouragement – and praise – they can trust. It is vital they are praised for being honest about misunderstanding and never allowed to feel inadequate and powerless. An excellent line manager will be able to note progress and should praise and support accordingly.

By doing these things, you will develop a strong, successful working relationship with your new colleague, helping them reach their full, rounded potential, while your organisation benefits from their unique talents and perspective.