One day on vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico my husband and I were sitting outside the house we were staying at when another couple walked by and asked us a question in German. Despite 3 years of high school German and 1 year of college, I didn’t understand a thing. They switched to Spanish which didn’t help. We finally figured out that they were looking for directions to town.

So, what did we do? We spoke REALLY loud in English and firmly gestured toward town. It didn’t work; they still looked confused. We even tried adding a foreign accent (not sure what it was) to our same loud English.

We were getting nowhere and feeling a little helpless but we didn’t give up. Eventually they pointed at their watch to indicate they wanted to know how long of a walk it was. A breakthrough at last! We proudly held up both hands to indicate 10 minutes and with a final, strong gesture toward town they walked off confidently in the right direction. Whew!

What’s the point? If you keep trying and will are open to exploring different ways of communicating, language barriers can be overcome.

Language barriers are becoming more common in the workplace and it’s critical that they are addressed. If not addressed, it can lead to mistakes, lack of trust, lower productivity, and many other issues.

The problem is that too many people are afraid to talk about differences for fear of being labeled some kind of ‘ist.’

I witnessed this when I was conducting an introductory leadership training to a group of lead workers at a large medical device manufacturing company. The group was made up of 16 lead workers. About half were white and the other half were Asian with English as their second-language.

We were talking about causes of miscommunication and the topic of language barriers came up. At one point, one of the older white women sheepishly raised her hand and asked what she should do if she is trying to communicate with Yang, one of the other leads, and he doesn’t understand her. I turned to Yang and asked him what she should do. He said, ‘Keep trying.’ Seems so simple doesn’t it?

The saddest part of the whole exchange was the fear and discomfort the woman felt for asking a perfectly reasonable, and necessary, question. We need to talk about these things.

My son-in-law is Hmong. He is a first-generation American and speaks English and Hmong equally well. His parents don’t speak any English. This can be challenging for my daughter. On Friday’s, her day off, she often goes over to help her mother-in-law who watches some of the children of other family members. They can’t communicate through words but somehow it works out.

Some tips for overcoming language diversity in the workplace:

Don’t avoid people because they speak a different language.

Don’t assume understanding. Just because someone is nodding in agreement it doesn’t mean they understanding.

Do sit with people in the breakroom even if you don’t speak the same language. A sense of belonging is critical for creating a strong team. Physical proximity can be enough to make other people feel welcomed and included. A smile goes a long way too.

Do get creative with your communication – without increasing your volume. Use hand gestures, images, maybe try to learn a few words. You can easily find language classes through community education.

In the workplace, it’s easy to limit our interactions to the people who are like us. That’s normal, it’s comfortable. One of the greatest gifts of developing leadership excellence is the opportunity to become aware of areas for growth. As a leader you owe it yourself, and the people you lead, to challenge your actions and attitudes and get out of your comfort zone so you can be a good example to others.

Liz Uram is a management skills expert who works with organizations that want to equip their management team for success.

Overcoming Language Barriers
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