Neil Payne

Article Summary:

Tips for overcoming the language barrier when at work, on holiday or elsewhere.

Overcoming the Language Barrier

Cross cultural communication is not the sole reserve of the business world. In fact, all of us in one form or another come across situations that require some kind of cross cultural communication and understanding.

One such situation is when communicating with foreigners. We all encounter people at work, on holiday or elsewhere who do not share the same language as us. Although we consider language the main means of communicating, language only represents 7% of what we communicate. There are many ways of overcoming the language barrier to allow for some cross cultural communication.

When faced with a situation in which there is no common language these points may help you to get your message across:

Say it without words
Use hands, arms, legs, gestures, facial expressions and everything else your charades experience has taught you.

Use emotions
Even in our own language and culture we do not always use language to express fright, frustration, anger or joy. Emotions transcend linguistic barriers.

Try out words
Sometimes we share common words and we do not know it. Additionally people from different cultures will have a passive knowledge of English gained through the media. Try saying the word slowly or with a different pronunciation.

Draw it
If you really cannot explain "milk" to the Greek shop owner draw the cow, the udders and the milk. Pictures speak louder than words. Most cultures will be able to spot what you are getting at straight away.

Ask for help
I f there are others around you do not be shy to ask for their assistance. It is often possible to find a willing translator.

Confirm meanings
If you are unsure whether the message has been understood confirm meanings. When doing so do not ask, "Do you understand?" as the answer will often be "yes" even if it is "no". Try re-phrasing what you have agreed or discussed.

Be patient
The key to overcoming the language barrier is to exercise patience. It is not your fault or the other person"s that you cannot speak each others language.

The above points will help you to overcome cross cultural communication problems and ensure you manage to get your message across in one form or another.

Neil Payne has travelled, worked and studied extensively in the Middle East. Based in London, UK, he has successfully completed an MA in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS University. Drawing on his experience as a language teacher, translator and cultural consultant, he has established Kwintessential Ltd., a cross cultural communications consultancy that provides cultural awareness training, language tuition, translation and interpretation. For more information, visit our "Cross Cultural Communication section" at

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