According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, up to 64% of businesses believe that language barriers are hindering their progress towards international expansion. Meanwhile 49% state that during their international deals, misunderstandings have result in financial losses for them. Chinese and Brazilian companies are affected the most by financial loss due to language barriers.

This is a huge concern, since it shows that businesses aren’t devoting the time and resources necessary towards language/communications training. English is widely accepted as the universal language, with more people in China learning the language, than there are English speakers in America. Yet businesses are still overlook this aspect.

How language barriers become an issue

In any business, disagreements and arguments are bound to surface; sometimes internally, other times involving third parties. There are several approaches to these arguments: integrative approach (expanding the pie), distributive approach (claiming as much of the pie as possible), compromising (sharing the pie), accommodating (the pie is yours) and avoidance (no-one gets the pie). When dealing with language barriers, lack of communication makes it extremely difficult to choosing the right approach and may even cause frustration to take over.

Another way language barriers becomes an issue is during the communication between managers and employees. There are two cases:

  • Employees using the language barrier as an excuse for underperforming. They might pretend to understand the manager whilst in actuality they don’t. The blame gets misdirected at the manager for failing to communicate.
  • Employees who are genuinely trying to do well, but held back by their lack of ability to communicate with others.

8 ways to prevent language barriers becoming a concern:

  • Avoid using idioms, slang or jargon. Other parts of the world won’t recognize these words or phrases, so it’s best to avoid them altogether. Jargon is fine for internal purposes as long as education has taken place.
  • Make documents easier to read. Avoid using Google translate, and hire an actual translator, as it will be worth it in the long run. The issue with translation tools is that it will result in several words that are different from the intended meaning. Also diagrams and images help foreigners understand a lot better than written communication, so use them whenever possible.
  • Ensure that the other party/person understands you by having them demonstrate their knowledge, rather than just repeating what you said.
  • Provide adequate language training to your team. You can even teach the classes yourself, but don’t just learn English and expect everyone to know it. Learning the basics of another language is extremely helpful for communication purposes. It’ll help people understand one another.
  • Find a translator in the workplace. It’s very helpful to have someone who can relay your instructions to foreigners. Perhaps there is already someone in the organization who is fluent in both languages. If not, then consider hiring one.
  • When deciding to expand internationally, consider hiring people who are fluent in two languages, so you save money on translators.
  • When starting an importation business, it’s important to screen the professionalism of a company before selecting to work with them. Language is one of the key factors to determining how professional a company is. It sounds harsh, but professionalism will determine the quality of product they are offering.
  • Finally, carry a sound recorder on you at all times. Sometimes, when dealing with foreigners, they will begin talking to each other in their own language. By recording their conversation, you can hire a translator on Upwork within 24 hours which will allow you to know exactly what they said. This is certainly a hardball tactic, but knowledge is power during negotiations.


Overcoming the language barrier is not easy; it takes patience and requires trial and error. During third party negotiations, everything starts with understanding the interests and long term goals other party. Success may have a different meaning to them than it does to you, and understanding it will increase the chance of obtaining an integrative solution.

Internal language barriers aren’t as much of an issue and comes down to identifying whether employees are actually struggling or just using the language barrier as an excuse for their laziness. Regardless, by accepting cultural diversity in your workplace, you will be bringing out the full potential your employees.