Navigating Communication Challenges in a Multilingual Workplace

Navigating Comm Challenges in Multilingual Multicultural Workplace

Navigating Communication Challenges in a Multilingual Workplace

Effective communication in a multi-lingual workplace can be challenging. It is especially difficult if English is your workplace language and you have team members from many different language backgrounds. With varying levels of competency in English, your teams likely experience communication issues.

The good news is that there are solutions to these issues. That is, there are a number of effective practices and policies as well as skills development options that can be implemented. Once implemented, they will greatly improve communication across all different language and cultural backgrounds enhancing English-language abilities. Here we run through them:


1) Encourage asking and learning in the workplace

Make the workplace a psychologically safe environment for non-native English speakers. Encourage and allow time for speaking up when someone doesn’t understand something. Encourage asking for information to be repeated or even to be communicated in another way, for example, written or visual.

If colleagues are working on improving their English, be as patient as possible when they are trying to express something. Cutting someone short or putting someone under pressure to finish their sentences can cause a non-native English speaker to feel anxious. This may cause them to take even longer to communicate what it is they wish to communicate. Being impatient with someone when they are trying to speak in English can also diminish their confidence. Some feel that they are being a nuisance to you. This is likely to make them much less likely to speak up. It could also discourage them from practicing their English in the future.

So, encourage and support non-native speakers in conversations. Make them feel like they have a voice and it is important, and practise patience!

2) Train and support staff in English

It is important to identify the English language support that would benefit your team members. Language is a broad topic, and despite what some language learning apps may lead you to believe, ‘fluency’ is not an easy-to-achieve target, especially if you are not using the language you are learning to a large extent every day. Therefore, the needs of individuals on your team may vary and usually, a one-size-fits-all language learning solution is hugely cost-inefficient.

effective communication in a multi-lingual workplace

In this situation, lower-level learners feel isolated and incompetent in training that is too advanced for them and higher-level learners quickly become bored and disengaged with training that is too easy for them – everyone feels misunderstood by their employers, demotivated, and sometimes even offended by such an approach. It is therefore important to understand that individual needs may be different. Employees arrive with different levels of English and some will be able to learn more easily on the job than others.

Make sure every member of staff, especially those with a lower level, is getting some support in the development of their English. This is a long-term goal. It doesn’t always need to be formal training, but perhaps the opportunity to work with someone who can informally teach new words every day. And, where possible, try to avoid having groups where only one (non-native) language is constantly spoken e.g. a group of all Spanish-speaking team members working together every day. This does not create an environment that is conducive to improving English skills.

3) Use an intermediary and/or language tools to translate

Unfortunately, with very low-level English users, there are no quick fixes when it comes to being able to communicate well. If you have a number of team members with whom communication is particularly challenging explore whether there is an intermediary that you can use, i.e. can you use someone who speaks their language to translate between you when needed?

You can also use Google Translate or other tools to help translate quickly. If you use a work communication app, such as Alchemy or Workvivo, it might be possible for your team members to access all information in their native language via this app.


While using these tools for the practical activity of communicating about tasks that need to be carried out, keep in mind that very low-level English users will find it difficult to improve their English without some form of intentional support and/or training. If you wish to motivate, engage, and essentially retain staff, then relying on these tech tools only will not be fruitful long term.


4) Train native English-speaking team members to speak Global English

The most difficult person to understand for someone learning English is a native English speaker. Why? Because often the native English speaker is not aware of how best to modify their use of the language when speaking with someone who is not a native speaker.

Upskilling native English-speaking team members in Global English is an easily implementable way of quickly reducing communication issues in any multi-language workplace. Global English combines simple changes to the use of English with essential cultural competence to make communication easier and more efficient – it’s amazing how easy misunderstandings can occur, but thankfully Global English makes it easy to rectify this.

Sharing the responsibility of clear communication among native speakers and non-native speakers not only has a positive impact on the practical side of communication but also has a significant positive effect on the sense of inclusion in a multicultural workplace, creating a workplace where native speakers and non-native speakers of English alike can thrive.

5) Develop cultural competence and intercultural skills for effective communication in a multi-lingual workplace

Separating language from culture is impossible. Speaking a different language is obvious. What is not often so obvious initially are all the deep-rooted cultural habits that everyone brings to each conversation and interaction. Communication that may be considered polite in the Netherlands or Germany for example, may be considered very impolite in Ireland or the UK.

effective communication in a multi-lingual workplace

If you have a multicultural team, it will be very difficult to perform consistently at a high level. It depends on all team members being culturally competent. Learning about other cultures must take place. This learning and skills development is usually most successful when formal training and intentional exchanges are combined. This creates awareness and develops skills with informal exchanges around culture in the workplace.

Developing intercultural understanding and cultural competence will help team leaders to more clearly set expectations regarding behaviour. This will also provide feedback that is easily understood which develops strong workplace relationships and team performance. Encourage conversations and opportunities to share each other’s cultures. Educate new arrivals to a country on the cultural norms of their new home! Never assume that everyone just knows!

6) Implement active workplace practices and policies for effective communication in a multi-lingual workplace

Any organisation can make effective changes or additions to their existing communication practices.

First, remember that spoken instructions can be the most difficult to follow. For that reason, and whenever possible, write information down and share it (by using an app, or email, for example). Is there something you can prepare in multiple languages for when new staff join your team? This is particularly true for information that needs to be repeated – for example, any information required for inductions/safety, etc. Can you also use pictures/diagrams where possible? Can you use process maps of how to do important work tasks etc.?

If you require feedback/input from a team member who does not speak English well, also allow them to provide this information in written/picture/diagram form. Don’t forget to give them time to provide the required information. They can translate it or simply think about how to communicate what they wish to communicate in English. Move away from only spoken conversations because, again, these are the most difficult. For effective communication in a multi-lingual workplace look at the following.

Here’s a quick summary of practices and policies you can implement:

  • Use multiple methods of providing instructions (oral, written, pictures, diagrams, process maps etc.)
  • Translate the most commonly needed policies, instructions etc.
  • Build in time and different methods for getting feedback
  • Actively provide language support (and assess needs)

7) Establish communication guidelines for effective communication in a multi-lingual workplace

Establish and enforce simple guidelines related to communication. For example, in a group, only English can be spoken unless everyone in that group speaks the other language. Establish how you wish to communicate with one another at every level – what are the communication expectations in the workplace? In a mono-cultural workplace, these expectations may not need to be communicated explicitly as everyone has the same cultural perspective.

However, in a multicultural work environment, everyone is likely to have their own set of expectations that is influenced by the culture in which they grew up. Therefore, it is certainly worth spending time outlining expectations around communication and then communicating these expectations with all team members.


Support matrix by level of English

Sometimes small changes can have a large positive impact that is felt long-term, and often one form of support can address a number of challenges that are experienced on multilingual teams all at once.

The main thing for effective communication in a multi-lingual workplace is to understand the situation as much as possible, for when you do not understand the nuances of it, then how can you affect positive change?

We hope this post has been helpful. If you would like support in this area, feel free to contact us any time.


Some of our courses related to the topics mentioned in this post:

Industry-specific English Training (example Hospitality and Healthcare)

Learn to Speak Global English

Leading Multicultural Teams

Cultural Orientation for Living and Working in Ireland

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