Crossing the language barrier

At my job, I spent a lot of time communicating with our development team in Vietnam. I’ve learned several things about international communications:

  • Communicate face-to-face whenever possible. We had a group of engineers from Vietnam visit our office in the United States for several weeks. We got to know each other as people, learn about each others’ working style, and gain some common experiences to help with our communication. It was a valuable experience and worth the expense. When that isn’t feasible, video conferences or videotaped messages can help.
  • Slow down when you speak. Native speakers in any language talk too fast for people who are not fluent in their language. If you want to try this for yourself, listen to TV or radio in a different language and see if you can catch up. Speak slowly and enunciate clearly.
  • Look for cultural similarities to aid communication. Last July, we took a visiting executive from Vietnam to a baseball game. Despite my best efforts as a Little League manager, he couldn’t grasp the game because it isn’t popular there. Three months later, we took the engineers to a hockey game. We told them, “Hockey is football (soccer) on ice.” They understood immediately and got into the game.
  • Don’t assume that they (or you) fully understand. Native speakers hinder communication with each other by assuming too much or jumping to conclusions based on scant information. It’s even harder when communicating with someone who isn’t fluent in a language. We also make cultural assumptions, use colloquialisms, or add nuance to our words in a way that someone from another culture wouldn’t understand. Ask for clarification and provide as much detail as needed so we can understand each other.
  • Make an effort to learn the other people’s language. It’s embarrassing that we Americans expect everyone else in the world to speak English, but we don’t make an effort to learn other languages. I consider it good manners to learn at least a few words in another language, and it furthers communication. Even when you mispronounce or misuse words, you give native speakers a chance to teach you as they correct you. By learning the language, you also learn about the culture, the history, and the values of the other society.

In a global economy, it’s important that we learn to reach across boundaries of nations, language, and culture to communicate more effectively with people around the world.