HR Leads Business

Dec 14, 2020 | Brad Wilson, SPHR, GPHR, SPHRi, HRCI Director of Business Development and Partnerships

Communication Best Practices in a Multilingual Workplace

Business continues to become more global, and U.S. companies are also becoming more diverse in terms of employees born outside of the United States. 

In fact, in 2019, foreign-born persons constituted 17.4% of the total U.S. civilian labor force, up from 13.3% in 2000. This increasingly global workforce is bound to present some challenges, especially with regards to communication.

Our workplaces are becoming more multilingual, and we have to learn how to support non-native speakers, according to Micah Bellieu, CEO and Founder of Fluency Corp, in her Nov. 19, 2020, Alchemizing HR presentation.  The consequences of miscommunication can be costly. In one international company she advised, Bellieu found that executive employees from Japan were spending up to 25% of their time deciphering what was said in emails and meetings — time they could have spent addressing other business needs.

She shared four best practices for supporting non-native speakers in a multilingual work environment.

Speak More Deliberately

Formal language training from a textbook or a course doesn’t always translate immediately into spoken communication. Spoken language can be harder to follow and process for non-native speakers, especially when spoken quickly, which can cause conversations with native speakers to become overwhelming.

To overcome this hurdle, get into the habit of speaking more slowly — and ask listeners if you’re talking too quickly for them. “Be very conscious of the speed at which you’re speaking,” Bellieu says. She suggests having a signal from meeting attendees to indicate when you’re speaking too quickly. Then you can modify your speed, and your audience doesn’t lose any value from the presentation.

Provide Opportunities for Clarification

Don’t assume that non-native speakers have understood what you’ve said without offering an opportunity to clarify. If you just ask if someone understood you, though, they may be embarrassed to say that they struggled. Instead, try asking more specific follow-up questions, or use statements such as, “I would like to hear your concerns.”

Make asking for help easy and approachable, and offer to answer any questions your listeners might have. When your meetings are virtual, try to use video so listeners can also see you. Visual cues are crucial for non-native speakers, Bellieu says. Additionally, have someone summarize everything being said in the chat, then email the chat logs to participants.

Simplify Your Word Choices

Nuanced language can be particularly challenging for non-native speakers. Idioms, for example, often aren’t included in formal textbooks, Bellieu says, and they can be confusing to non-native speakers. Be cautious when using idioms, and if you do use them, avoid confusion by explaining what they mean.

Phrasal verbs, or verbs composed of more than one word, can be confusing, too. “To tell someone” something is an entirely different action from “telling someone off,” for example. Practice simplifying your language to accommodate non-native speakers who could find complex phrases confusing, Bellieu suggests. Simplification will prevent ongoing miscommunication and create efficiency.

Offer Continuous Support

The work environment and culture will be experienced differently by a non-native speaker than by a native speaker. And since non-native speakers are often in the minority, their experience can become lonely. Bellieu suggests implementing a voluntary “buddy system” to help non-native speakers acclimate.

One-on-one interactions with native speakers will help them adjust and become more fluent in the language, especially in spoken interactions. Human resources, direct managers and other supporters should never assume that just because someone speaks well that they have mastered a new language or are confident in it. Continue offering support, as well as opportunities to practice speaking in a safe environment.