How to overcome language barriers: The international workplace edition

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Many of us who live abroad work in international organizations where our our day-to-day worklife is sometimes revolves around how to overcome language barriers.

It’s a lot more common now that people from all over the world find themselves having to work together.

Having one common language, such as English, should in principle help ensure that people have at least one thing in common in international companies.

But often enough, our local colleagues often carry on with business in the local language.

The very language that you thought you didn’t need to know in order to do your work.

In this post I will share some tips on how to tackle such a situation.

[RELATED POST] Should you learn the local language?

How language barriers come about in international companies

Language barriers are often thought to come up in situations where people have to communicate with one another but do not share a language in common. That’s one scenario.

Today, another scenario has become more commonplace.

The scenario where people have supposedly agreed on a company-wide level to use one common language, but some people in the company do not honor that agreement ‘because it’s just easier to do it in [enter local language]’.

Oh boy.

Let’s unpack this from the beginning.

I fundamentally believe – and you’re welcome to disagree with me – that people can speak in whatever language they want to. That applies to locals and foreigners.

Of course, this is also a problematic thing to believe because there are always consequences to our language choices.

Some languages can open doors for us. Other languages keep doors closed.

But international organizations are unique in the sense that they strive to level the playing field and either operate with several languages or with just one common one.

In other words, they often have language policies in place.

But studies have repeatedly shown that whether we’re talking about policies for diversity and inclusion, equal pay or language, policies are just a piece of paper. At the end of the day, people do what people want to do.

So where does that leave you, the expat who has taken on a job in an international organization but who can’t understand what their local colleagues are saying?

[RELATED POST] How to live abroad without knowing the language + tips and tricks

How language policies fail and international employees lose out

The most immediate effect of some of your colleagues going ‘sorry, we’ll just take this in [enter local language] because it’s just easier’ is that you’re kept out of the loop of essential information.

Regardless of the fact that this information may in fact be vital for you to do your job.

Another unfortunate by-product is that you’ll struggle to establish relationships with your colleagues if the lunch breaks often take place in the local language. You learn absolutely nada about your colleagues as regular ol’ people if you don’t choose to speak in the same language.

What’s more, you’ll struggle to move beyond being seen as a foreigner because the language barrier will constantly be in the way of things.

The good news is – you’re not alone. Studies have shown that this is a common experience for many international employees, even those working in international organizations.

International employees report feeling isolated and not knowing how to overcome these language barriers. 

They’re also deeply annoyed at having to ask people to switch to English, or to any other agreed-upon common language.

The bad news is – there’s currently far too little awareness around the importance and impact of everyday language choices at work.

[RELATED POST] 3 biggest myths about the benefits of learning the local language

What you can do to overcome language barriers

Realize that the people speaking in a local language may be uncomfortable with speaking in English (or any other common language). This may sound like complete nonsense to you. If they work in an international organization, then why would they not feel comfortable? I agree with you. Sounds strange. But just as you are likely to stay in your comfort zone given the chance, so are your colleagues. As a result, given the opportunity, they too would choose to speak in whichever local language. It doesn’t make them a bad person, it just makes them human.

Should you learn the local language? This is up to you. It depends on your goals, how long you plan on living in the country, your opportunities to learn and practice the language etc. Whatever you choose to do, you need to be aware of the consequences of your language choices and come to terms with how much you will ever be able to overcome the language barrier.

You have the right to enforce the language policy (provided that there is one). I really do get how annoying it is that people don’t abide by a company-wide agreement to use a common language. I also get that it gets very old, very fast when you have to be the only one reminding people what the language policy is. As tired as it gets, don’t start internalizing this as a problem to do with you. It can just be a clash of values around languages.

Start raising awareness about the impact of everyday language choices at your workplace. This is a challenging one and not always the easiest. You will need to exercise your judgment on how best to proceed and establish very good relationships with people in positions of power. You will need to slowly enlight them about the consequences of everyday language choices and what the current reality is doing to some of the employees. If you can, team up with some other people and slowly approach the issue. You can also try and come up with concrete suggestions for how to do things differently so your critique is seen as constructive. Feel free to get in touch with me if you’re coming up short on ideas.

Put language choice up on a meeting agenda and aim to listen to all perspectives. For instance, in one of my past workplaces, we did precisely that. As a result, we agreed that since everyone could at the very least understand both Danish and English, everyone was welcome to speak the language they felt most comfortable in. This resulted in ‘parallel language’ interactions informally and formally e.g. where one would speak in Danish and another reply in English, and vice versa. This solution may not be feasible where not everyone has receptive skills in several languages, but the first step towards finding a solution is putting language issues up as a point of discussion.

What problems have you experienced with language barriers working in international organizations? Let me know in the comments below.

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