Communication becomes tricky when employees from an international background are not comfortable in English. That said, due to South Africa’s diverse population, this could even be true for an all-South African workforce!
Common workplace issues as a result of language barriers
When you can’t communicate effectively with a foreign-language employee, you can’t adequately give direction, explain expectations or provide performance feedback.
The employee, at the other end, are unable to adequately voice difficulties in understanding job functions or work processes, share concerns or provide feedback.
In fact, a foreign employee’s lack of English skills might even deter them from speaking up.
Strategies to overcome language barriers
It is possible to work around language differences, in order to minimise misunderstandings and mis interpretations.
In our experience, the following strategies work best to overcome language barriers:
Use visual methods of communication
Incorporate pictures, diagrams and the like into all the core material of the company, such as health and safety manuals.
Use showing and telling to train
Seeing something done in practice makes it easier for someone to understand a process. Thus, show and tell as much as you can during training sessions.
To see whether employees grasp a concept, have them performed the task in front you.
Offer basic language classes
Most foreign employees will be able to speak and understand a degree of English, so language classes could be used to teach company or industry terms in English.
Also consider including uniquely South African concepts, phrases or idioms. Many foreigners have been confused by the use of ‘robots’ as opposed to ‘traffic lights’.
Use simpler words when speaking
Simpler words are shorter and have fewer syllables, making them easier to understand. For instance, converse vs talk.
Make use of repetition
Repeat yourself when discussing difficult concept and frequently check for understanding. Often when someone is not asking questions, it means that they are in fact not unclear on what’s being discussed. The same goes for vigorous nodding – the person might be doing it to create the impression of understanding. This person usually has a problem with speaking up or are insecure.
Learn the basics of your employee’s language
If you’re dealing with a number of languages, this could very well be unfeasible. But if only one foreign language is spoken by your international employees, make an effort to learn a few basics. This will not only ease communication, but also show that your employees are important to you.
Last but not least, to overcome language barriers – be patient. Fluent communication won’t happen overnight.
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