At more and more companies, working with or managing employees who speak different languages is just a daily part of doing business. The upside of this is that your company will benefit from the diversity of perspectives that comes from having an international workforce. But the challenge is that communication issues can impede collaboration and keep some employees from being able to contribute to their fullest potential.
As a provider of corporate language training, we’ve seen what really works when it comes to helping everyone in your multilingual workforce understand one another, feel supported and be at their best. Here are four best practices to implement in your workplace.
Make Conference Calls Easier to Manage
Conference calls can be frustrating even when they’re in your native language. People constantly talk over each other and interrupt. And there’s always that one participant whose connection is so bad that it sounds like they’re calling in from the moon.
Now imagine how much harder it would be to follow what’s going on in a conference call and try to contribute when you’re not a native speaker of the language that the other people on the call are using. It’s a lot harder to understand people on the phone than it is in person since you can’t see their mouths or body language.
So what can you do to help employees who participate in conference calls in their second language?
- Use video conferences instead of conference calls so call participants can see each other. Options include Skype, HighFive, Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting and many others.
- Send bullet points ahead of the video conference so that participants can more easily track what’s going on.
- During the conference, assign someone to paraphrase what’s being said in the messaging section of the platform.
- You should also assign someone to write up a synopsis of the video conference and send it to everyone afterward.
Speak Simply to Enhance Understanding
You probably think that you speak English in a clear, straightforward and easy-to-understand way. But, in reality, you’re likely saying lots of things that absolutely baffle your colleagues who aren’t native English speakers.
Everyday conversations at work are often overflowing with jargon, slang, idioms, abbreviations and phrasal verbs. Even if your colleagues who aren’t native English speakers have studied the language extensively, they may struggle with these aspects of English because they aren’t typically covered in academic textbooks.
Here are some examples of words and phrases that might confuse your international colleagues and some ideas for what you can say instead.
- Jargon. Sometimes business jargon seems like a language in itself! Most of us are guilty of using words and phrases at work that we’d never use in everyday conversation with friends and family. Start paying attention to your use of jargon and see if you can rephrase what you want to say in a way that’s easier for non-native English speakers to understand. For example, instead of saying “I’ll circle back around with you next week on the report,” say “I will send you an email next week to get your thoughts on the report.” For many more examples of business jargon and simpler alternatives to use instead, see this list by the Straight North marketing company.
- Slang. English, like all other languages, is always evolving. That means that your colleagues who aren’t native speakers may be clueless when you say things like “Jennifer in Marketing spilled the tea on why Drew really left” or “Have you seen the new logo design? It’s fire!” (And, truthfully, slang use might turn off your colleagues who are native English speakers as well. In one survey, more than half of respondents said using slang at work is totally unacceptable.)
- Idioms. An idiom is an expression whose meaning is different than the literal meaning of the words that make it up. Here’s an example: “We really hit the ball out of the park.” Your colleagues who aren’t native English speakers might be thinking “What ball? What park?” Instead, say something like “We did a great job” or “That presentation was excellent.” If you do catch yourself using an idiom, take a moment to explain what it means.
- Abbreviations. With email, text messaging and chat platforms, we exchange a lot of written communication at work. As we do, we often use abbreviations — like “ICYMI,” “NBD” or “IMO” — so that we can dash off messages faster. Sometimes abbreviations (for example, “ASAP” and “FOMO”) even make it into spoken conversation. Unfortunately, this alphabet soup of abbreviations can really confuse non-native English speakers. You don’t have to stop wishing colleagues “HBD!” on Slack, but add some context (like balloons or cake emojis) or even put “Happy Birthday!” in parentheses so everyone can understand.
- Phrasal verbs. These are verbs with some extra words thrown in. For example, “She broke down after the meeting.” Phrasal verbs rarely get covered in traditional English language training, so they’re hard for non-native speakers to keep up with. Try to use simpler alternatives, such as “She cried after the meeting.” You use more phrasal verbs in your everyday speech than any of the other above. Be the most careful and aware of these!
Use Lunchtime for Language Learning
One of the best things you can do to help non-native speakers feel more comfortable with English is to give them more opportunities to practice speaking. If your native and non-native speakers work in the same location, start a “lunch buddy” program. Post a sign-up sheet on your office bulletin board or in Google Docs. Then work out a schedule where different employees have lunch with each other every week.
The more that coworkers talk with each other, the more they will understand each other’s quirks and ways of communicating. That will help them collaborate on the job. The lunch buddy program will also give your international employees a chance to ask language and cultural questions of your native employees.
You don’t have to limit things to lunch, either. Organize some happy hours or other events where employees can mingle in a non-work setting and non-native speakers can get that all-important conversational practice. It all adds up. Every 100 hours they spend speaking English will raise their communication one whole level.
Offer Language Training for Employees and Spouses
We see time and again how an investment in business language courses makes employees more productive and efficient and how it improves collaboration between native and non-native English speakers.
But remember that non-native English speakers on your team aren’t just trying to navigate life at work. They, and their families, also need English skills to make friends with their neighbors, talk to their kids’ teachers and ask questions at the grocery store or pharmacy, just to name a few examples.
That’s why we recommend offering language training to both your employees and their spouses. Doing so can help your company avoid costly failed international relocations.
It’s never too late for language training, either. Even if an employee has been in the U.S. for several years and has some proficiency with English, they can still achieve dramatic breakthroughs in their ability to communicate. We get calls from employees that have been in the US for over a decade that want to work on everyday English vocabulary, phrasal verbs, idioms, and most requested is accent clarification work.
We’d love to talk more about the specific needs of your multilingual workforce and how Fluency Corp programs can help your company achieve its goals. Contact us for a free consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 401-3159