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How Managers Can Communicate Better with Foreign-born Employees

February 1, 1993
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Working with employees for whom English is a second language can at times be a difficult task for the employees who manage them. Here are a few simple tips from Sondra Thiederman, president of San Diego-based Cross-Cultural Communication, on how to communicate with someone whose English skills are minimal, to assess how well the individual has understood what you've said and to understand better what employees whose native language isn't English are saying when they talk to you. Even foreign-born people whose native language is English may use the language differently. These suggestions are useful for communicating with them as well.

When communicating with people for whom English is a second language:

  • Construct your sentences carefully and precisely
  • Don't shout
  • Speak slowly and distinctly
  • Avoid pidgin English
  • Emphasize key words
  • Allow pauses
  • Let the worker read your lips
  • Use visual aids
  • Organize your thoughts
  • Use handouts
  • Use nonverbal signals (cautiously)
  • Be aware of your tone of voice
  • Use familiar words
  • Repeat and recap frequently
  • Take care not to patronize
  • Check often for understanding
  • Don't cover to much information at one time
  • Be careful when translating
  • Choose interpreters carefully
  • Use bilingual group leaders.

When assessing how well you've been understood:

  • Watch for nonverbal signs that indicate confusion or embarrassment
  • Notice a lack of interruptions
  • Notice employees' efforts to change the subject
  • Notice the complete absence of questions
  • Notice inappropriate laughter
  • Invite questions in private and in writing
  • Allow enough time for questions to be formulated
  • Be alert to the yes that means "Yes, I hear your question" not "Yes, I understand"
  • Be alert to a positive response to a negative question
  • Be alert to a qualified yes in response to the question, "Do you understand?"
  • Have the listener repeat what you have said
  • Observe behavior of employees and inspect production.

To understand people who are learning English:

  • Share the responsibility for poor communication
  • Invite the speaker to speak more slowly
  • Repeat what the speaker has said
  • Encourage the worker to write
  • Allow the worker to spell difficult words
  • Read the speaker's lips
  • Give the speaker plenty of time in which to communicate
  • Listen to all that the speaker has to say before assuming that you don't understand
  • Observe body language
  • Remember to listen and expect to understand.

SOURCE: Bridging Cultural Barriers for Corporate Success: How to Manage the Multicultural Work Force, by Sondra Thiederman, Lexington Books (a division of Macmillan, Inc.), 1991.

Personnel Journal, February 1993, Vol. 72, No. 2, p. 62.

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