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Language Where the Rubber Meets the Road

January 1, 1999
Related Topics: Global Business Issues, Featured Article
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Linguistically speaking, English is a messy language. Its roots are diverse, its variations are numerous, and many of its grammatical rules are complex and riddled with exceptions. And yet, as one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, most of our international dealings are handled in our native English.

Many of our counterparts in traditionally non-English-speaking countries were raised in schools with mandatory training in foreign languages—often English—but such training has not been emphasized in the United States. So millions of dollars are spent each year by U.S. companies to provide training in foreign languages and cultural sensitivity.

After all this training and sensitizing, there’s one simple but significant adjustment that still needs to happen in most cross-cultural interaction. It involves a conscientious effort to ensure that our communications—verbal, written and other visual—are as clear and easy to understand as possible.

The amazing thing is you don’t need to be an expert in conjugations, prepositions or adverbs to do this. All it takes is a flexible attitude on our part and a little effort to ensure we relay information at a level appropriate for the other party. This sounds simple, but there’s a fine line between making yourself understood and appearing to be condescending. Take the following six quick and simple steps to enhance effectiveness at communicating across the language barrier with international associates.

Some phrases don’t translate.
When listening to a presentation or reading a report, have you ever wished you could cut through the technical jargon, buzzwords and acronyms so the material was easier to understand? Consider the challenges faced by your international counterparts when, in their dealings with us, they encounter this type of confusing communication in a language foreign to them.

At a recent seminar with HR managers from the far-flung reaches of six continents, Irecognized the need for making ourselves better understood. All the participants spoke at least some English, although in most cases, their native tongue was different than that of the presenters. As you may know, there’s a difference between carrying on a simple conversation and jumping into the complexities of technical terminology. As the first presenter arose, the colloquialisms and jargon started to flow:

  • This is the "meat and potatoes" of human resources. (Blank stares.)
  • It’s a "dog-eat-dog world." (Noticeable concerns regarding the lunch menu.)
  • "Ramifications of termination indemnification obligation situations..." (Lost a few native English speakers on that one.)
  • Am I making myself "as clear as mud?" (Unfortunately so.)

At the conclusion of the seminar, I was joking with my colleagues about the use of such idiomatic phrases to a global audience when the keynote speaker started his speech by saying, "This is where the rubber meets the road."

This challenge isn’t limited to foreign languages. While on an expat assignment in Australia, my family quickly learned our English was not the only English language. We were still learning new spellings and expanding our vocabularies on the day we returned to the United States.

Laugh only at yourself.
If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you’ve invariably experienced the embarrassment of a mispronounced word, incorrect conjugation or any other mistake that causes a look of befuddlement on your listener’s face. Most novice speakers of foreign languages are just one syllable or one letter or one tone away from a big mistake at any given moment. Like the time in Singapore when Ithought Ihad ordered a little snack, but ended up with a massive food platter that could have fed a family of six. Speaking a foreign language takes courage. Be sensitive, supportive and helpful—but not too helpful—when someone is trying to speak your language.

Don’t judge intelligence on English fluency.
Just because your global counterparts may not speak perfect English doesn’t mean they’re not highly qualified, capable or intelligent. On the contrary, remember who’s making the effort to be multilingual.

I recall listening to a Latin American reluctantly do a presentation in elementary English. His words came slowly, and his explanations were simple. When he conducted a question and answer session in his native language through an interpreter, it was apparent he was a seasoned professional of great intelligence. Some things are best done through an interpreter. On the other hand, this man’s presentation in English left a lasting impression of determination and personal accomplishment.

Try a language.
There’s a negative attitude in the United States regarding the learning of foreign languages. In addition to thinking it isn’t necessary, we tend to think we need to master the language and become totally fluent before our studies pay off. That’s nonsense. It’s quick, fun and easy to learn a few words or phrases in a foreign language. A simple greeting can do wonders in establishing a relationship with your international contacts. If you meet your Japanese guests at the airport with a simple "hisashiburi" or "yokoso," it will set the tone for a much more productive relationship.

Be understood.
This involves more than simple yes-or-no questions. You usually won’t get an accurate answer just by asking people if they understand. It can be embarrassing or culturally unacceptable to admit a lack of understanding. Don’t repeat yourself unnecessarily, but rephrase important concepts and, when appropriate, do some checking to see if the information is being received correctly.

Use visuals.
When learning a foreign language, many people focus on written materials. Seeing words in print can ease the stress of verbal communication. By preparing brief handouts or slides with key words, summary statements and charts, you’ll be doing everyone a favor. And you’ll find your international associates will appreciate receiving advance copies of the discussion materials. This gives them a chance to study unfamiliar terminology.

The challenge of global relationships certainly isn’t limited to linguistic sensitivity, but this is a good place to start. And the first step in making this happen requires a little modification to the way we interact in our own language. Effort in this direction will help to make your rice bowl a little fuller.

Global Workforce, January 1999, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 14-15.

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