11 September 2014

Facing language barriers in internal communications

The global nature of companies and the diversity of employees add an entirely new dimension to planning internal communications, and the importance of language and meaning needs to be taken into account.

Anyone who has attempted to learn another language (yes, GCSE French does count) will have some knowledge of how language barriers affect communication. Even with interpreters and translators important messages can become lost in translation – for instance have a look at these illustrations of 30 untranslatable words from other languages to English.

In a business sense, the potential for being unable to effectively communicate with some, or in some cases the majority, of your workforce is worrying at best. A global survey looking at attitudes of more than 250 global HR directors, learning and development professionals and C-level executives (Speexx Exchange Survey) reported that a third of respondents found a reduction ‘in internal conflict arising as a result of improved communication. Difficulties caused by the language barrier and cultural variations in communication can lead to frustration, mistakes and delays, hampering the agility of a mobile, global workforce’.


But help is at hand! Well matters are certainly improving with the development of translation technologies. Google’s popular Google Translate, for example, may eventually expand; following their acquisition of Quest Visual (makers of the clever Word Lens app) in May this year; to include elements such as “pointing your smartphone’s camera at signs in the real world for instant translations”. Imagine the possibilities – though they may be far off – for internal communications with this type of technology that allows employees to scan and read the same company messages in their own languages.

Online meetings and conference calls are changing to with potential real-time translations for businesses becoming more of a reality through the work HP is doing with SpeechTrans, a start-up. They claim we will be able to translate conference calls as they are in progress, handling conversations of any length in 44 languages.

Back in the present day, your internal channels can help to overcome language barriers. We have created a number of digital magazines, for instance, that at the click of a button change the text from English to a translated copy, from Chinese to Spanish. The use of graphics and making communication more visual, for example through infographics, will also help as it means complex messages can be put into a format that is more easily understood. Video is also a good tool as subtitles mean a single film can be equally entertaining and useful to the person following the words being spoken and the person following the written text.

Ultimately, the effect of language barriers on communication in the workplace can be damaging causing difficulties and silos, but dealing with these issues and showing staff that extra efforts will be put into approaching them in their native language will go a long way towards aiding employee engagement.