This blog post starts from the assumption that interpersonal spoken communication should be open, respectful and equal between participants, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or age.

What is a language barrier?

A language barrier can occur when people are unable to communicate with each other clearly. The Oxford Dictionary describes a language barrier occurring when ‘people cannot communicate because they don’t speak the same language’. However, it is also possible for a language barrier to arise within one language. Take, for example, a businessperson from southern England, who has to go to Scotland on a business trip. He or she may encounter a different dialect which because it might be difficult to understand what is being said, can become a barrier between the people involved. Furthermore, a language barrier might arise if people use sexist or racist language. Here are some other examples of language barriers:

  • Not using clear speech
  • Using jargon and slang
  • Poor word choices
  • Different levels of literacy and language ability
  • Grammar and spelling

The examples above also suggest that people’s education level can also create a language barrier. Someone who drops out of school at the age 16 will probably have a different level of literacy and language ability to someone who has a university degree. We should also remember that as well as using language effectively, it is important to listen to what the other person is saying. Good listening skills are crucial.

Is a language barrier really a problem?

A language barrier can have negative effects on communication by:

  • Stopping information from flowing between participants, resulting in people not getting the correct information from their colleagues.  This can lead to:
  • Blocked relationships. Relationships are formed and can be broken by language. If I am unable to get the correct information from a colleague or if I can’t communicate clearly with them, then it’s difficult to form a relationship with this person. This, then leads into the final point:
  • Frustration. If I don’t have appropriate information from my colleague and can’t build a relationship with them, it can lead to frustration between my colleague and me. This will get in the way of effective work practices. 

Why is language barrier a real problem?

There are many reasons why a language barrier could be a real problem. I’m now going to look at some specific examples:

  • Expert views: the public might not understand an expert, for example a chief medical officer, who talks about coronavirus and specific aspects of the molecular makeup of the virus and its impact on the pandemic. In order to be understood, the expert will have to use different grammar and vocabulary, taking account of people’s different levels of understanding.
  • Management scenario: different work cultures have different ways of solving problems. In certain parts of the world, for example in the Far East, managers prefer to take a backseat approach. In other words, they will ask their employees to solve their problems themselves. For someone from Europe, this may be an unknown situation and might lead to a breakdown in communication.
  • Four-sides model: this is based on research done by Friedemann Schulz von Thun. He suggested that a single sentence can be distorted to produce four different meanings: the fact layer, the self-revealing layer (the speaker tells you about their feeling, emotions, etc.), the appeal layer (a command to do something) and the relationship layer (how the speaker gets along with the receiver). The importance of this is that a simple sentence such as “there is something green in this food” could be misinterpreted by your counterpart. They might, instead of just taking it as a fact, consider it on the self-revealing layer (“you think my cooking is terrible”) or possibly on the appeal layer (“take that green thing out”). This could lead to a breakdown in a conversation very quickly, if the speaker doesn’t clarify they mean.
  • Telephoning: a language barrier can also arise when we are phoning people. As emotions can’t be seen, we can only guess how people react to different things. For example: “I hope you remembered Martha’s birthday.” If the receiver of this has forgotten Martha’s birthday, they might react differently to someone, who didn’t forget her birthday. And as the speaker cannot see the emotion or reaction, this could lead to a language barrier as well.

How can we avoid language barriers

Language barriers are very common in our society. However, there are some ways we can avoid them and improve things if they do become a problem. Most important is that when we are trying to communicate with others we are respectful to them.  This means that we do all we can to understand their situation and how they see the world.  It means that we have to listen carefully to what is being said and, importantly, that we are sensitive to their feelings and views.  Communication is not just a matter of language; it involves people’s feelings too!

Respect

It is very easy to assume that everyone understands things in the same way as you. Different literacy levels, experiences and backgrounds will shape people’s understandings of everything around them. So, you should treat the person with the respect they deserve – recognising and valuing their experiences – and try to comprehend how they see the world and how they understand what is being said to them. The problem is that many people believe that their counterparts will understand everything in the way intended, leading to a possible breakdown in communication.

Try not to use unclear or over-complex language

Respect can only be given to someone, if the person listening understands you. If you see that your counterpart is having problems understanding your language or your grammar and spelling, try to clarify or simplify the language you use. This will make the conversation run more smoothly.

In written language, your grammar and spelling could also lead to a breakdown in communication. If you are unsure about the spelling or grammar, ask a friend or family member to help you. This way, there is a better chance of being understood.

However, if simplifying the language doesn’t help, then use the following point:

Repeat yourself

If something is unclear to the person listening, you could repeat what you have said.  If that doesn’t result in the person understanding what you want to say, you might have to find another way of saying it. Again, you could repeat the simplified language that you have chosen perhaps speaking more slowly.

Avoid using slang

Slang might sound good to you, but not everyone will understand it. Within one language there may be hundreds of different types of slang used by different regions. This can lead to real complications, because one slang phrase might have a completely different meaning in another part of the country. For this reason, avoid using slang with strangers unless you know that they will understand what you want to say. Moreover, it’s probably not a good idea to use slang with your bosses, you might end up in trouble, or worst still, being fired!


Der Gastbeitrag stammt von Tamás Bradford. Er gibt Englischkurse und schreibt auf seinem Blog über die englische Sprache.

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