Dealing with Language Barriers During an International Conference Call

Dealing with Language Barriers During an International Conference CallIt’s common for language barriers to arise during an international conference call. The nature of a global teleconference virtually guarantees that participants come from different backgrounds and speak different languages.

While it’s impossible to completely erase language barriers amongst a geographically diverse audience, you can do your part to be an effective communicator. Below are a few tips to help overcome potential language problems.

  • Include language details in your international conference call’s invitation. By stating clearly in the invitation which language will be spoken, your audience will be better able to decide if attending the international conference call makes sense. If you intend to hold two or more versions of the call in different languages, make sure to include the details for those calls in the invitation. For example, you could say something like, “This call will be conducted in English. A Portuguese version will take place on (date/time) followed by a Spanish conference call on (date/time).”
  • Speak slowly. Non-native speakers will appreciate the slower pace which helps them to process what’s been said.
  • Avoid slang, cliches, and colloquialisms. They simply do not translate well. In fact, they probably won’t make sense whatsoever. For example, if you intend to start a project right away, saying “let’s get this ball rolling” could confuse non-native speakers and have them wondering what a ball has to do with anything. Instead, be clear and say “I want to start this project immediately.”
  • Send out a detailed agenda. The more you can fill in the blanks in advance, the better. By having a detailed agenda in place, each participant can quickly determine the general topic of discussion which provides extra context to the conversation.
  • Consider using an interpreter. Interpreters may be necessary in some situations. Due to the nature of an international conference call, you can use a “virtual” interpreter located in any country. Just as regular participants dial into the teleconference from their phones, the same is true of an interpreter.
  • Consider allowing personal interpreters. Some participants may want to use their own personal interpreters or even a trusted family member to help them understand what has just been said. If the content of the call is not proprietary or confidential, this can be helpful to individuals. If you’re concerned about confidentiality, it may be necessary to require a non-disclosure agreement. If personal interpreters will be used by participants, make sure to instruct those individuals how to mute their lines so the interpretation remains private.
  • Record the international conference call and make the recording available to participants after the fact. Some participants may appreciate being able to go back and listen to the teleconference afterwards to ensure that they didn’t miss anything.
  • Have the recording transcribed. Sending a transcription of the international conference call is another way to help non-native speakers get more out of the call. In addition to sending a word-for-word transcription, or as an alternative, you could also send a synopsis that summarizes the key points.
  • Have the recording or transcription translated. Another option is to translate the recording or transcription. For example, if the primary languages of participants are English and Portuguese, you could conduct the call in English, record it, and then have it translated into Portuguese.
  • Encourage questions. Another option is to recognize potential language barriers from the beginning and encourage participants to “raise their hands” or interrupt you if something doesn’t quite make sense. By alerting you to sections that don’t make sense, you have the opportunity to rephrase your statements or clarify. This can also help you improve your presentation as you learn more about what trips up your audience. For example, you may realize that you use cliches far too often. With this realization, you can then pay more attention to your own speak patterns and habits.
  • Issue a post-teleconference survey. Have participants fill out an anonymous survey after the global teleconference. This can alert you to communications issues that participants may have been hesitant to raise during the call. One of the questions you might include on the survey is this: Describe anything that you feel was unclear during the call? From there, use this feedback to write up a short letter clarifying any key points that may have been misunderstood.

International conference calls bring with them the potential for communications problems due to language differences.

It’s not easy, but it is possible to communicate despite language barriers.

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