Overcoming Language Barriers in Business

If you are a non-native English speaker in the business world then you know how it feels when a sense of doubt comes over you during a conversation. It may be in a meeting, on a conference call, during a negotiation, while giving a presentation or during a one on one conversation with a client. And knowing that you are not the only one to experience this gives you no greater comfort or resolution.


Years of experience, knowledge and wisdom can’t prevent this doubt from creeping up on you. We all know what it feels like. You find yourself confused, tense, or you get a strange feeling in your stomach. It’s not a nice feeling. After experiencing this, the natural question becomes: how do I avoid feeling like that again?


There are some key things that can be done to help avoid these situations.


  • Keep an eye on body language. Even with a divide in language skills, it is easier to notice more universal communication signals given off by body language. Often, this will give you an indication that you are being understood.


  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t understand”. Most people may be embarrassed to admit this, but as anyone who has learned a secondary language knows, this is going to happen occasionally. Most often the person or people that you are communicating with will accept this and try to find another way to communicate their message.


  • Ask for clarification. Many times native speakers use abbreviations, acronyms, slang and expressions to get their point across. I find this happens especially in the international IT world where acronyms are the norm. Again, don’t be embarrassed asking what something means. Your contact will appreciate that you are seeking clarification. The best way to ask this is to simply say “I’m not familiar with XYZ, what does it mean”.


  • Ask your partner if they mind if you use a translation tool during your conversation before it begins or once you have trouble with a word or expression. Depending on the formality of the situation, using technology to overcome misunderstandings is an accepted solution.


  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. A useful phrase is to say “Let me make sure I understand” and repeat what you think that you heard. This will help to ensure the meaning and not just the words were conveyed correctly.


  • Hire a native speaking representative. In some situations it would often benefit a company to outsource their communication to a native speaking representative. This can help to improve your company image and professionalism. You only get one chance to make a first impression. With potential revenue dependent upon your image, the return on investment can be extreme.


  • Prepare ahead of time. If you have a situation where you are going to be using English and are not confident with your language skills, simply sitting down with a native speaker and asking questions can be a great way to avoid miscommunication. Asking a native speaker what certain phrases or terms mean can be invaluable. This can be especially helpful for presentations. Do a practice presentation in front of a native speaker and ask them to correct or clarify your wording.
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