5 Tips to Overcome Language Barriers

With the combination of growing multiculturalism and increased overseas outsourcing, there is a greater demand on communication skills than ever before. Not only do you need to be able to explain yourself and understand others, but you need to do this regardless of their native tongue. Here are a few tips that I’ve found to be helpful in my dealings with people who speak another language, or have a very heavy accent that I find hard to understand.

Keep it Simple

Simple vocabulary means more people can understand what is being talked about. This goes both ways – when talking to someone who is weaker in the language you speak, or when they are speaking to you.

Big words don’t make you look smart. Being quickly and clearly understood does.

Use written communication when possible

Written communication removes accents that might be difficult to understand and it gives the author and reader the ability to re-read the text to gain a better understanding of what is trying to be communicated.

Remain Focused

You should be attentive and patient when communicating with anyone, but when there is a substantial language barrier, it is even more important. Look them in the eyes and pay close attention to the words that they say. Try to piece what you can together, and repeat what you think they’ve said back to them so they can approve or try again.


Many people are not even willing to try and communicate, as they do not see it is worth the effort, or they believe that someone else will do it for them. The harder you try at something the more likely it is that you will succeed. Show that you are making an effort to understand, and chances are the person you are trying to communicate with will put more effort in to communicating with you.


Find language courses that are offered in your area, and send your staff that could benefit from the teaching. A bit of professional help could go a long way. Just don’t forget to reinforce the importance of simplicity.

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  1. 1 08.07.08
    1:10 pm
    The Multilingual

    Or maybe trying to learn their language? It might be good to show some respect towards people that are communicating in a second (third/fourth/n-th) language and try to show that you appreciate their effort. Even if the “work”-language is English, a little interest for the other persons (ie. the one with the oh so terrible accent) language can go a long way.

  2. 2 08.07.08
    3:00 pm
    Bill Chapman

    What about a more radical solution? I would like to argue the case for Esperanto as the international language. It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states.

    Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years.

  3. 3 08.07.08
    4:40 pm

    Bill Chapman is right.

    However Esperanto’s problem seems to be that no-one knows that is is a living language!

    For this reason Pope Benedict used it in his Easter address from the Vatican, and the Beijing Olympics have appointed an Esperanto translator.

    Another good site is http://www.lernu.net

  4. 4 08.07.08
    10:37 pm

    @The Multilingual: You’re absolutely right. That is something I should have mentioned in the article, but didn’t think about it.

    Another thing to add is that you should always allow communication in someone’s native tongue to happen. If you have a few colleagues from China or India, have them communicate with each other in their respective languages if that makes it easier for them.

    @Bill and Brian: I’ve never heard of Esperanto before, but I will check it out. Sounds quite interesting.

  5. 5 08.09.08
    11:39 am

    [...] 5 Tips to Overcome Language Barriers [...]

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