June 2014

June 2014

Communicating Across Language Barriers

“I didn’t understand a word he said.” “I had to replay her voicemail message four times to get her extension, department, and name in order to return the call.” “We don’t have a bilingual supervisor…how can we communicate with our Spanish-speaking employees?” “She’s a good accountant but her supervisor and our clients have trouble understanding her.”

The diversity in today’s work environment offers many challenges to a company or institution with a multicultural workforce. Verbal communication with workers whose primary language is other than English can be daunting to both sides. Many highly-skilled and valuable employees have difficulty with the pronunciation of American English. There are sounds in our language that do not exist in other languages. Speakers can sound unintelligible to customers, supervisors, or co-workers because they are not able to produce sounds in English or stress the wrong syllable. Idioms, expressions, and acronyms that we use on a daily basis are often not understood by a foreign-born employee. Their mastery of English verb tenses is often incomplete. Timetables and deadlines can be impacted. Native speakers of English in the workforce can therefore have great difficulty decoding the pronunciation, syllable stress, and cadence of the “English” spoken by their foreign-born co-workers and contractors. Result? Errors in production, patient care, order fulfillment, etc…often causing higher costs and damage to profitability.

Fortunately, there are practical solutions to these challenges. Training can build communication bridges that enable foreign-born employees to rise to their full potential. Verbal communication can be improved 50-60% in a short time with a targeted, systematic approach.

Other communication obstacles occur when supervisors and workers do not speak the same language at all. Essential safety and procedural information can become difficult or impossible to transmit to the non-English-speaking worker. Written translations are helpful, but not always successful. Many employees from less developed countries have little reading knowledge of their own language.

Supervisors do not need to “learn Spanish”, but to learn to communicate directly with people who speak Spanish. Using a co-worker to interpret between supervisor and employee can compromise privacy issues. In the absence of qualified bilingual supervisors, successful bridges can be built with short, industry-specific training. Internal employees and customers can learn to communicate directly and effectively with Spanish speakers in as few as 20 training hours. Alternatively, essential safety, compliance, or management skills training can be delivered in the language of the worker to assure complete understanding and minimized risk.

New Jersey companies or institutions in need of this specialized training may be eligible to participate in programs funded by NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development at no out-of-pocket cost. There are also special initiatives for certain industries, such as bio-technology/pharmaceutical, finance, information technology, and hospitality/tourism.

Contact us to learn more.