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October 15, 2016

How to Work Across Language Barriers

Gone are the days when the most distant person you would do business with was in the next town. As the global economy continues to unify, more and more companies have to work with people from all different walks of life and countries with varying languages. So, how do you break down the language barriers? If you are English (or speak it natively), you’ve got it easier as most children around the world learn it as a second language, but their parents may not have. For example in Japan, it is not common for an adult to speak good English (although the children are a bit more proficient).

Without getting a translator, you’re not going to have much luck, however if there is a little common ground, language wise, here’s how to capitalise on your time together, whether you’re writing a translation brief or are in a face to face meeting.

Clarification and Understanding

Things get lost in translation and so that is why you should always get clarification if you think you didn’t quite understand what the other person said to you. No one is going to begrudge you if you politely ask for clarification on an issue. As well as this you should frequently recap everything that has been discussed to make sure that everyone is on the same page, otherwise it might lead to cross wires and the breakdown of the partnership if you both leave the meeting with a different idea of what happened.

Idioms and Jargon

Idioms and jargon are a great way of relaying messages and meaning to other native speakers. They act as a common code that relays meaning in a succinct way to those around you, however someone from another culture will not understand what you mean by ‘think outside the box’ or ‘take it up a level’ as they will have their own versions. The problems that lie with translating them is that when translated literally they will make no sense or have a completely different meaning to what you intended.


You must be specific when conversing with a foreign partner, especially when speaking face to face as you don’t want to leave room for misinterpretation. If you are specific and to the point and clarify so that they understand, mistakes shouldn’t be made. This also ties in with an earlier point, but never be scared to ask for specifics if the person is being a bit wishy-washy.

Channels of Communication

I think it’s always best to meet face to face, as body language is invaluable when doing cross language business. This should, however, be followed up with the written word (on physical paper) as well as email as this way, there is always something that can be returned to for further clarification or translation.

Patience is a virtue when dealing with people who don’t speak the same language as you. Getting angered or aggravated when they don’t understand, or you don’t understand them will not help business in the slightest.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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