The importance of overcoming language obstacles in global business.
Stepping into new markets is always challenging as you try to understand your new audience. It’s even harder when this audience uses entirely different languages and cultures.
The art of communication is key to global expansion, not just in transferring messages but also in building relationships and fostering a shared culture. The need for effective communication becomes even more prominent when we consider the subtleties introduced by language barriers.
Why language barriers are important and what gets lost in miscommunication
Multilingual individuals often perceive and interpret languages differently, which can shape their reactions depending on the language used.
A Journal of Research in Personality study found that the personality traits of bilingual individuals can exhibit variations based on the spoken language at any given time.
Localization emerges as a powerful tool in this context, helping to convey the intended message without the risks of cultural misinterpretation.
During onboarding, communicating in the local language can foster a better understanding of the company culture, steering away from unintended interpretations. The same goes for unfortunate cases in which an employee needs to be terminated — those moments are already tense, and you wouldn’t want to make it worse with improper communication.
So, what’s the cost of getting it wrong?
Miscommunications stemming from language barriers can have wide-reaching consequences, from damaging reputations to legal complications. It can adversely affect customer experience and employee productivity, with misunderstandings potentially leading to conflicts and errors. Moreover, it can render market research ineffective, creating inefficiencies and escalating costs.
Potential legal complications include disputes that arise during contract negotiations that can lead to possible legal actions. An incorrect translation or different interpretation of a term can result in agreements not being upheld.
Additionally, companies might inadvertently violate local regulations due to a lack of understanding of the language nuances, resulting in fines and legal penalties. It can happen when, for example, a company fails to correctly interpret or adhere to specific regulatory guidelines in a non-native language.
The same goes for a company’s interaction with consumers. Miscommunications in a press release or advertisement can lead to public relations incidents that damage a brand’s image, including a backlash on social media. Customers who feel misunderstood or receive bad information due to language barriers are likelier to leave a negative review.
This said, the failure to address language barriers can place a company at a competitive disadvantage.
6 Strategies for overcoming language barriers
Acknowledging the depth of the problem, companies should institute strategies to overcome language barriers. A company can foster unity and effective communication among employees who speak different languages and with their customer base by implementing a combination of language-related resources, training and cultural sensitivity initiatives.
By prioritizing inclusive communication practices, organizations will be better prepared to achieve common goals with a diverse team, ensuring all employees are on the same page.
Here are six approaches to consider:
1. Leadership representation: A critical step is ensuring that leadership comprehends and effectively represents the diverse linguistic landscape of the market. Leaders cognizant of the linguistic nuances can foster a culture of inclusivity, blowing past potential communication roadblocks. In effect, they can guide strategies with a deep understanding of various market demographics, proving beneficial in product localization and global marketing strategies.
2. Language training: Offering language training to employees is a great proactive solution that fosters good communication from the ground up. This initiative also empowers employees, fostering a workspace that respects and nurtures diversity. Companies like Rakuten in Japan have adopted English as their official language, providing language training to all their employees. This strategy has led to a more global mindset and expanded business opportunities.
3. Leveraging translation tools and professional interpreters: Utilizing the innovative stride in technology, companies can bridge communication gaps effectively using translation tools and experienced interpreters. Tools like Google Translate have come a long way, offering real-time translation services for smoother communication in multilingual settings. However, for critical business communications, professional interpreters ensure accuracy and maintain the formal decorum of the boardroom.
4. Cultural awareness training: An enhanced understanding of local customs and nuances through cultural awareness training can prevent potential misunderstandings, fostering stronger relationships. It aids in creating a cohesive work environment where respect for diverse cultural backgrounds is a norm. It also provides employees with the tools to interpret messages accurately and consider the cultural context, ultimately reducing the scope of misunderstandings.
5. Localization and clear communication guidelines: Adopting strategies such as utilizing visual aids and simplifying language can facilitate better communication. In this context, localization extends beyond language, embracing local customs and preferences in communication styles to appeal to a broader audience. Clear communication guidelines, on the other hand, foster clarity and prevent potential miscommunications, steering teams toward a more harmonious environment.
6. Feedback and patience: Building a culture that encourages input and demonstrates patience is fundamental in nurturing positive relationships. It allows for a two-way street where employees can voice their concerns and seek clarifications without hesitation, promoting a holistic understanding and mutual respect.
In the end, companies must be discerning enough to tailor their approach based on the inherent dynamics of their organizational culture. Individual voices matter; you want to maintain a flexible approach toward work environments and ensure everyone feels heard.
Nonetheless, implementing a mix of language resources, training and cultural initiatives will help build a shared foundation for your employees and customers regardless of their languages.
Monitoring effectiveness and adapting as needed
Communication is the glue that holds everything together. And when you’re venturing into the global market, understanding each other isn’t just nice. It’s essential.
Having a regular rhythm of check-ins and feedback loops with your employees — I’d suggest quarterly — will help you keep a finger on the pulse of how things are going. It’s about keeping the lines of communication clear so everyone can share their thoughts, and strategies can be tweaked as needed to foster a better understanding.
Rick Hammell is the Founder and majority shareholder of global tech firm Atlas, a groundbreaking Chicago-based company he established in 2015. Prior to this, he served as the Global Vice President of Human Resources and Services for a prominent government contractor.