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Communicating through a Language Barrier

Communicating through a Language Barrier

Recently, I started learning Spanish. Whilst it’s certainly not an easy task and I’ve been taking it very slow, just learning the basics, it did get me thinking about past experiences…

What do you do if you’re presenting to a foreign audience?

Sometimes, a language barrier can get in the way. Even if you both technically speak the same language, you can struggle.

Language is the single biggest barrier to communication in any presentation. Even when two people speak the same language, differences in perceived meaning can be huge. And of course, the difficulties are even more pronounced when you and your audiences have different first languages.

Someone who is speaking your language as a second language will struggle even more than others to understand unusual vocabulary and jargon, or words used out of familiar context. Even someone with a different accent to you would struggle. And of course, someone from the same background as you would also struggle with unfamiliar vocabulary. So a language barrier can take many different forms – before you even take into account communicating in an actual different language.

So how can you overcome potential language barrier difficulties?

1. Simplify language. Avoid jargon unless absolutely necessary – and if it is, explain it. Don’t use colloquialisms that non-native speakers will struggle to understand. Don’t use fancy words to try and impress. You won’t.

Also, as difficult as some of you might find it, try to avoid all but the simplest of jokes – it can be difficult to successfully get these across at the best of times, let alone in another language. Keep your vocabulary simple and your audience will find it far easier to stay focused and get to grips with your main points.

2. Speak slowly, clearly, and ‘chunk’ your sentences. If your audience is speaking English as a second language and you suspect they might struggle to understand you, pause after phrases to give them a chance to register what you’ve just said. Slow down your speaking – even more than you would in a normal presentation. It may feel unnatural, but your audience will find it hugely beneficial.

3. Use visuals. Visuals can have such a huge impact on understanding and recall when everyone is comfortable with the language you are using – just think how useful they can be when comprehension is already an issue. Keep the same pattern going with your visuals throughout and your audience will be able to use it as visual cues as to what you mean – meaning they can focus on the key points you want them to remember.

4. Use gestures. Honestly, it’s amazing just what a difference a few gestures can make. If you’ve ever travelled to a country in which you do not speak to a word of the language, you will have experienced firsthand just how far a few gestures can go towards you getting a hot coffee and a sandwich. While some gestures are native to specific regions and can mean different things in different parts of the world, instinctive gestures – even things as simple as pointing – can get your point across simply with minimum fuss.

5. Ask questions. The only true way to know whether someone has understood something is to ask them about it. And this does not mean asking them, “Do you understand?” – because invariably the answer will be ‘yes’, whether or not they have any clue as to what you are discussing. Ask them specific questions that require specific answers and you will be able to tell whether or not they are on the same track as you. If not, go back and repeat things they are unclear of. If yes, well, great!
If you use these techniques, you’ll be surprised at just how easy it is to get your point across through a language barrier. And you may find that they help in your everyday presenting too.

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