Breaking Through the Language Barrier
Victoria G. Stachowski (with Alice Underwood)
When the phone rang, I started to sweat. I didn't want to answer it. Why? I had been in the office only a few days, and virtually no one knew my extension. Nevertheless, although it was almost certainly nothing worse than a wrong number, I was reluctant to lift the receiver. The reason was I didn't know what language the caller would speak.
Americans are notorious for their poor language skills. Although in the States I was considered a prodigy, with high scholastic achievements in French and German, moving to Zurich was a lesson in humility. All around me people tripped lightly from one tongue to another, making it look as easy as skipping stones. But when I tried to hold conversations in a language other than English, I sounded like an idiot.
Now, after more than two years in Zurich, I've learned a lot about doing business when language barriers may get in the way. Here are a few pointers.
The Guiding Principle: If your colleague doesn't speak English perfectly, that doesn't make him an idiot. Americans often assume that when people don't speak perfect English, their intelligence must be impaired. Kick this prejudice out the door and slam it shut. Your colleague may well be smarter than youafter all, he's learned a second (or third) language.
There are several things you can do to make communication with a nonnative English speaker easier.
Speak slowly and clearly.
Avoid using slang and figures of speech.
When someone doesn't understand, first repeat your words exactly_slowly and clearly. The person may have simply not caught everything you said. If that doesn't work, try simpler words.
By the way, speaking louder is a correction to a volume difficulty, not a language difficulty. Just be sure you don't mumble.
When communication is important, make sure you're understood. Check your listener's comprehension. Don't assume that reassuring "uh huh" means your message has gotten through. Ask if she understands. And be careful: when your listener does understand you at first, it's tempting to fall back into your usual rapid and slang-laden speaking style. A puzzled frown forming on your listener's face may indicate that you are doing this.
Make sure you understand. Despite your colleague's best efforts with English, sometimes you will get a letter or hear a sentence that is ambiguous or meaningless. Repeat back, in simple terms, what you think he wants to say. If there's still a miscommunication even after he explains again, consider asking him to explain in his native language if that's an option for you. If that's not an option, keep the next point in mind.
Be patient. Someone speaking English as a second language will go slowly and make mistakes. Make sure you pay attention and try to understand what that person is trying to say. Although it may take more time, her ideas are worth waiting for.
Be willing to explain things. One of my employees (a man) wanted to know what the word "contraceptive" meant. So I told him.
Be encouraging. Learning another language is a lot of work. Language difficulties multiply when you're on the phone. Your colleague has no cues from your facial expressions and body language. And conversely, you can't see your listener's face to judge her comprehension. So make an extra effort to speak simply, slowly, and clearly—and to make sure you understand and have been understood.
Here are some rules to remember when you're speaking another language imperfectly.
Corollary to the Guiding Principle: Because you don't speak the language perfectly, you may sound like an idiot. Not everyone around you will question your intelligence—but, unfortunately, some will. However, there are certain steps you can take to avoid appearing foolish and to be effective in business situations even if you do still sound a bit silly from time to time.
When communication is important, make sure you understand. Ask questions. And it's OK to ask someone to speak more slowly.
Look up terms ahead of time. The phrases "earned premium" and "allocated loss adjustment expenses" were not included in my university courses on French and German literature. However, these phrases are critical to actuarial work. Either turn to a technical dictionary or to someone who can and will translate for you, and learn whatever jargon you can before your meetings.
Be persistent. Even when it's difficult—and it's often difficult—keep trying to speak. You will make mistakes. That's life. But as you keep on practicing, the terror of talking in another language will gradually fade away.
If most of your office-mates speak beautiful English, your learning of the other language may be slowed. They may prefer to practice their English on you. Make sure you get your practice time too! One colleague uses the following method: every morning he and his colleagues speak German together until either he, or they, have had enough. At first the German-speaking part of the morning was pretty short. But now he often makes it most of the way to lunchtime.
When you can't explain your point effectively with words, use pictures, numbers, or whatever is necessary. Prove your competence in a different manner. If you need to make a presentation in a different language, look up key words and phrases beforehand. Prepared slides are, naturally, an enormous help, but you also have to be ready to go beyond just reading the slides.
Ask for help from others. I have a whiteboard full of German words and expressions contributed by my colleagues. Some of them aren't particularly usefulder Dudelsack means "the bagpipes"but each day I learn a little more. And people appreciate the fact that I am working on the language.
Be considerate and flexible. Keep in mind the other person's facility with English as well as your own with the second language. Your colleague may be able to speak English but will be much more comfortable and effective with her native tongue. Always be willing to speak, or at least listen, in that other language if you can. Sometimes the odd-sounding combination of one person speaking English while the other speaks German works quite well.
These days when the phone rings it's usually for me. I still don't know what language the conversation will be in, but somehow I blunder through.