Have you ever placed a restaurant order or asked for directions in a language you didn’t grow up speaking? It’s pretty stressful, right? Now imagine getting through a whole workday using only a language that isn’t native to you. Imagine meetings, conference calls, making small talk in the hallway. If your company has a multilingual workforce, there are employees living these anxiety-filled scenarios every day. They’re having experiences like these:
“I’m afraid to speak at meetings because they’ll think I’m dumb when they hear me speak.”
“I remember I was alone with a co-worker and had to ask her a work-related question. When I opened my mouth, nothing came out. I literally choked. I got so nervous, I started crying in front of her.”
“I wouldn’t share ideas unless it was in my first language. I tried to hide so I wouldn’t have to speak in the second language.”
(The above are all quotes from real Fluency clients, by the way.)
When employees feel this afraid, anxious and withdrawn, they’re not contributing as fully as they could be. Your company is missing out on all they have to offer. At Fluency, we teach an easy-to-recall formula for communicating with, engaging and supporting a multilingual workforce. Just remember the word SASS:
- Slow down
- Ask for input
- Support Them
Let’s take a closer look at each part of SASS.
Seriously. Even if you think you don’t talk fast, remember that you probably sound like a Gilmore Girls episode to a non-native speaker. I used to work in Mexico, and when I first started my job I was constantly asking people to slow down, even though I had long studied Spanish. Our brains just need a little more processing time when we’re operating in a language we’re not used to. When you remember to speak slowly and clearly, you’re making a big, big difference in how well a non-native speaker understands you. That, in turn, helps them do a better job and increases their sense of connection.
Ask For Input
Don’t assume that someone understands what you’ve just told them. For example, after you give an employee directions, ask them “What did you hear me say?” or “What’s your opinion on this plan?” so you can get a sense of what they actually heard (which may be very different from what you said). It’s especially important to do this on conference calls, where we lack the visual cues like gestures and facial expressions that help us understand each other. You’ll need to ask for this feedback directly at first. And you’ll need to show some patience, since your listener will need a couple of extra moments to formulate their thoughts. But the payoff is worth it: Non-native speakers will gain confidence, and your company will gain the benefit of diverse opinions and insights from a multilingual workforce you wouldn’t have heard otherwise.
English is a rich, fascinating language — that also feels a little crazy sometimes. Non-native speakers will better understand you if you remember these tips for simple, direct language:
- Avoid idioms. An idiom is a word usage or expression that’s not meant to be taken literally. Every day we use scads of idioms at work, like “We’re making cuts across the board” or “Their vice president is a real stick in the mud.” The problem is that non-native speakers have to be fairly advanced with their second language to understand its idioms. (Further complicating things is the fact that two countries can share a language but have very different idioms —like the U.S. and the U.K. Idioms can even be exclusive to one region of a country.) Try to avoid idioms when you’re communicating with non-native speakers. For example, to replace the idioms above you could say “The budget reductions affect every department” or “Their vice president dislikes change.” If you do use idioms, explain them to non-native speakers. You’ll be doing them a solid (which is an idiom that means “doing them a favor”).
- Limit phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are verbs with two or more words — like “to pick up on” (something). They often have very nuanced meanings that we pick up on because we’re used to them. But a non-native speaker is unlikely to have encountered them in a formal language class.
- Be direct. Have you ever noticed that we use a lot more words than we need to sometimes, especially in business? Somehow, we got the idea that sounding polite and professional requires being verbose. But this is another way we make things harder on non-native speakers. In presentations, I like to share a cartoon that illustrates this point. The speaker, evidently not in his native country, asks another man “Would you please be so kind as to point me in the direction of the premises where I will find some relief?” But what he really needs to say to be understood is “Toilets, please”! You may feel brusque at first, but being more direct and concise is actually one of the most considerate things you can do for non-native speakers.
Support Your Multilingual Workforce
Language isn’t just about knowing the same words and phrases as everyone else. It’s also about feeling a sense of connection to the world around you. Failed international relocations are costly, and they’re often caused by an inability to adapt. Make sure you’re supporting employees making a huge move or that you’re asking employees who have been in the U.S. for awhile if they’d like more support. That support can take many forms. Can you facilitate the process of finding a “work buddy” for your non-native speakers? Having an ally at the office can open the door to greater ease and involvement with others. Enlisting help from a language coach can also be a powerful way to build employees’ communications skills and confidence.
Fluency recently developed a program for a Fortune 500 company that finally started language training for employees they had had for 10-plus years. It’s all because a manager spoke up and said, “Man, let’s help these guys feel more confident, and in turn, we’ll get more feedback and clearer communication, and we’ll probably retain them for longer.” He’s a smart man. Any steps you take to support your multilingual workforce will pay off in greater engagement, creativity, satisfaction and retention.
Below, Fluency Corp’s founder Micah Bellieu gives a brief presentation to the 2017 California HR conference on implementing SASS. Take a look.
To talk more about a learning and support plan that works for you company, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (800) 401-3159 to set up a free consultation.