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Speaking Each Other's Language

Written by

Speaking Each Other's Language

Richard Hadden


Let's face it. Communicating at work is tough enough when both the speaker and the listener speak the same native language. Add different tongues to the dynamic and, sacré bleu! You’ve just hit a wall, and not the kind that’s proposed for the US’s southern border.

To be clear, language, as well as literacy (the topic of a future post), are essential job skills for almost any work you can imagine. So how can we possibly hope to get the most from people whose language we don’t understand, and who don’t understand us?

I’ve heard the “This is America. If you want to live and work here, you should learn our language!” argument, and in an ideal sense, I agree. People who speak English in the US have an advantage, just as Italian speakers do in Rome. But we can “should” all over ourselves about a lot of things. Or – and this would be my suggestion – we can take competitive action, and in distinguishing ourselves from our rivals, both for customers and for talent, get better business results.

So, whether you think you should or not, here are two things you can do, if you want to increase the engagement of your team members who don’t speak your language: (These specifics assume your work takes place in English - but the concept works for any language.)


1. Learn their language. You don't have to be prepared to discuss the merits of existentialism in a postmodern world with your foreign-language team members, but it'd be great if you could greet them, ask how they're doing, and talk about some work-related topics with them. In today’s world of podcasts, and other language learning resources, getting good at a new language has never been easier. I’ve been learning Spanish off-and-on for 35 years. Since subscribing to a couple of Spanish podcasts, and engaging in a weekly Skype conversation with a native Spanish speaking friend, I’ve gotten closer to fluency than I’ve ever been.

  • Just a few suggested resources:
    1. Radiolingua.com. Podcasts to learn multiple languages. I’m a longtime subscriber to Coffee Break Spanish. Working on Coffee Break German right now.
    2. Realfastspanish.com with Andrew Barr. Cuts to the chase. Practical and effective.
    3. Speaky.com. Instantly practice languages with people around the world. It’s like a dating site for language learners. It’s amazing!

2. Help them learn English. You want to create loyal, committed, engaged workers? Help them learn any essential job skill, or life skill. Help them learn English, and they’ll never forget you. Just as there are lots of resources for Anglophones learning a foreign language, podcasts and other things abound that are designed to help people get their English on, and fast.

  • Check out fluentu.com, learningenglish.voanews.com, and allearsenglish.com.
  • Nearly every community has churches and other organizations that offer free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Help your non-English speakers connect with some of these resources.
  • Look right under your nose. You probably have fluently bilingual employees who could teach those who are still struggling. Make it part of their job. Or pay them extra for extra duty.
  • Bring English in-house. Contract with teachers or tutors to bring language learning inside your walls.

Again, as with most of what we advocate here at Contented Cows, we take a strictly business approach. This isn’t just about doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. It’s about doing the right thing, because it works!

Buena suerte! Udachi! Bonne chance! Ganbatte kudasai! Good luck!

Richard Hadden

Richard Hadden is an author, speaker, and workplace expert who helps leaders create a better, more profitable place to work. He and Bill Catlette are the authors of the popular Contented Cows leadership book series, and Rebooting Leadership. Learn more about Richard, Bill, and their work at ContentedCows.com. Or Hire Richard to speak for your next conference or leadership meeting.

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