9 Steps to Overcoming Language Barriers in the Workplace


The world has become significantly more multicultural thanks to global communication and trade. While this opens most of us up for new encounters, new food, and new friends, it can be difficult to deal with language and communication barriers. As many companies are increasingly multinational, it has become more common for most people to work with colleagues from another country. Sometimes, this can lead to embarrassing cultural faux-pas.

Working with people from other countries can also present a challenge when it comes to communication. While there may be an “official language” of the workplace, there will still be miscommunications from time to time. These miscommunications are more common when a significant number of employees are not working in their native language.

For example, if your company operates in English but is contracting with a Chinese company. While these instances might be frustrating, there are many strategies you can employ to keep things running as smoothly as possible.

Here are my top 9 tips to ensure that you cut down on language barriers in the workplace.

  1. Combat Language Barriers with Language Training
    While this won’t eliminate all the problems of multi-language work environments, it can reduce them significantly. If, for example, your company has a large presence in France, have workers complete introductory French language training. Although they may not become fluent, they will have a better understanding of where the French staff is coming from.

  2. Discuss Cultural Differences
    Cultural differences can lead to problems in the workplace. Even little things you may not think of can create major issues between people if they aren’t addressed. It is helpful to educate your employees on cultural differences they may encounter. This may include everything from the way people sit in their chairs to the way they speak to one another. Miscommunication when it comes to cultural differences can lead to conflict if individuals mistakenly believe someone is intentionally being rude. Oftentimes, that isn’t the case, and it is an issue of cultural misunderstanding. Nipping these issues in the bud can help in the long run and create a smoother work environment.

  3. Use Simple Language with Coworkers
    Using simple language can preemptively eliminate a lot of the issues caused by language barriers. If your employees are discussing things with people whose primary language is not English, they need to be aware of this as they create emails and presentations. This can mean encouraging them to be direct, to the point, and leave out superfluous words. Ditching idioms can also help, as these are often a source of confusion.

  4. Hire a Translator or an Interpreter
    While many people may be competent in the second language they are working in, hiring a professional translator can help clear up mistakes and miscommunication. This is especially a good idea if you’re working on more complicated ideas. Translators can help where words or attempts at understanding one another fail. You should employ a translator to translate the most important documents in the office. This can include company policies, benefits details, or new rules you’re enforcing. That way, there is no ambiguity. Often, companies will rely on internal individuals who took language courses in school or who speak a second language outside of work. While convenient, this often leads to noticeable mistakes that a professional translator who is an expert in corporate communications would avoid.

  5. Use Visuals
    Words often fail us and using visuals can really make a difference when it comes to understanding concepts. Utilize infographics, photos, and diagrams to help people grasp what you’re trying to convey. Encourage your employees to do this in presentations and emails so that everything is as clear as possible.

  6. Remind Employees to Be Respectful
    Language barriers can often be frustrating. Sometimes, they can even lead to conflicts between the parties. While this is inevitable in a multi-lingual environment, remind your employees to be as respectful as possible. Put an end immediately to any mocking or jokes about someone’s ability to speak another language. This can cause fractured relationships in the workplace and can also make the person embarrassed to continue to improve their skills. Your environment should be as supportive as possible.

  7. Repeat Yourself
    Repetition is the key to memory. Even those who hear something once in their native language may not always remember what you’ve said. It may be even more difficult for it to “stick” if you’re speaking to people in another language. Even if employees find it annoying for you to repeat yourself, in some cases it is necessary to ensure everyone is on the same page.

  8. Encourage Employees to Explore the Other Culture
    Language is an intrinsic part of a culture, and a multi-lingual environment is a great jumping-off point. Encourage employees to learn phrases and idioms in the other language as well as explore differences in food and traditions. You may also facilitate conversations about different topics, such as how cultures handle specific situations or holidays. This can give your employees not only the chance to grow in their careers, but also to grow personally. Getting to know people from other countries and cultures is a wonderful way to learn more about the world. Your employees even might just find it fun.

  9. Be Mindful of Gestures
    The gestures that American speakers think are rude may be wildly different from gestures that those from other countries believe are inappropriate. For example, gestures that are very commonplace in the United States might be very rude in Japan and vice-versa. Before entering the workplace, you should be mindful of the gestures. Educate your employees on this as well. Many of us don’t think before we make gestures with our hands, but this can lead to serious hurt feelings and anger. If everyone is schooled on what is and isn’t appropriate, there will likely be more laughter than assumptions that the other person was trying to be rude. Moving Forward Overcoming a language barrier at work is a process of trial and error. Along the way, there will be frustrations and laughter, but in the end, it will be an incredibly rewarding experience. You might find you really like learning about other languages and cultures.