Communicating Over the Telephone When There Is A Language Barrier


Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work in London

Talking over the phone can be hard enough when you cannot analyze the body language; but what is it like when you have a difficult time understanding English? The stress, frustration and feelings of helplessness can be magnified, unless you have a patient person on the other end of the line who is willing to go the extra mile to be attentive.

Sometimes both “fluency” and “accent” can create barriers over the telephone. In the first case the person may have an inadequate vocabulary to express themselves and in the latter they may have an accent but be very fluent. Quite frequently, you will get both an issue of fluency as well as accent.

Eliminate distractions like background noise.

In any case, when you are dealing with someone over the phone that you cannot understand you will need to eliminate as many distractions as possible where you are and where they are. This call will require a lot more out of you so you will have to “hyper-focus” on what the person is saying.  If you have any background noise where you are, move to another spot to take the call. If the noise is coming from the other person’s place say: “I am sorry, but I am having a hard time hearing you. I hear noises and I cannot hear you very well. Would you please move to an area which is quieter?” Usually this works, or if they cannot move to a quieter place they will call you back when things have settled. Or you may find that you have to make the best out of communicating with background noise.

Remember to speak slowly.

While you are speaking the other person may be trying to translate what you are saying in their head. They could also be trying to write things down. It takes time to make the mental transition, so give them time. Even though you are speaking slowly, try not to be patronizing, people can tell when they are being disrespected even over the phone. Just because someone has a language barrier doesn’t mean they lack intelligence.

Speak at a normal volume.

It always surprises me that when we are faced with language barriers there seems to be an almost automatic response to speak more loudly.  That doesn’t work, and could actually backfire on the phone making the other person agitated.

Speak in short sentences.

If you speak in short sentences you will likely pause more and speak more slowly. This will help the other person interpret what you are saying more easily.

Enunciate clearly.

If you are sloppy with your enunciation, this is the time to speak very clearly. Make your consonants shine! It is easy to say: “Whad’ya wanna do?”; But it will be hard to understand. Instead you will want to say: “What would you like to do?”

Get rid of the jargon.

Choose words carefully. But also remember that abbreviations, acronyms and others can be very culturally specific and confusing. Say the whole word and not a short version of it.

Take the call in steps.

Sometimes people will ramble on especially if they are emotional. You may find that they are giving you lots of information and you are feeling overwhelmed. If you can find a break in the conversation say something like this: “Can we stop here for a moment? I would like to make sure that I understand what you are asking?” Repeat what you believe you have heard and clarify. What you are doing is paraphrasing what was said. This allows you to check in every so often to make sure that you understand before you ask the caller to continue with what they are trying to communicate. It also shows your caller that you are interested in his/her message because you are checking the message. If you have only understood part of the message than you can ask more questions to obtain the information that you need.

Try again.

If you think that the person on the other end of the line does not understand what you are saying, instead of repeating what you said in the same way, try different combinations of words or descriptions. I usually find that this helps. Similarly, if you don’t understand what the other person is saying on the other end of the line you can say: “I am sorry but I do not understand, could you explain this again to me in a different way?”

Seek Help.

In the worse case scenario, when you don’t think you are getting through and if a face-to-face meeting is impossible you may want to get another person involved who is familiar with one of the languages. It could be someone that you work with or alternatively, you could ask the caller if he/she can have a friend or family member call you back that you can speak to.

It is important at all times to convey to the person with the English language barrier that you want to help them and want to give them good service. For most English as a Second Language Speakers they find the telephone to be a huge barrier and communication can be very stressful. Having a patient person on the other end of the line, who is willing to go slowly with them, and communicates a sincere interest in wanting to help them, goes a long way in making the call smoother for everyone involved.

The Bachelor: Language Barrier Is Not An Excuse


Written by: Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work in London Inc.

I hate to admit it, but like 10 million other viewers around the world I became hooked on The Bachelor reality program and saw it for the first time this last season. After a long hard day’s work, watching scenes of beautiful people and places and with absolutely no intellectual demands on my brain – The Bachelor was actually a relaxing way to unwind.

For the last 20 years I have worked with New Canadians so I have grown to learn a lot about second language acquisition. Most of the people who I have worked with would be at the Canadian Language Benchmark of 5 or over so their English is good enough for a survival job – at the very least. For the first few weeks, I was trying to figure out whether the bachelor, Juan Pablo really had a language barrier or were they referring more to his accent. I came to realize that while he might not know all of the slang and idioms like “the little package” he was referring to, but he could not blame his rudeness on his language barrier.

First of all, Juan Pablo has studied in the United States and worked in English television programming,obviously he would have had a very good command of the language. When he spoke he did not make a lot of the usual grammatical mistakes you would expect someone with a language barrier to make. He used articles and pronouns appropriately. Sharleen, the opera singer hit the nail on the head when she said she was looking for someone who was “more cerebral”. She was looking for someone who she could have an intellectual conversation with and it wasn’t him. Juan Pablo did not have a language barrier that prevented him from having an intellectual conversation: he simply lacked depth.

Even with New Canadians with low levels of English like a 5 or lower, they can often make connections, analysis and evaluations of events although with grammatical mistakes. However, if you listen, you can hear the depth of their logic. A language barrier does not make you self-centred. Juan Pablo’s lack of insight and ego-centrism has nothing to do with his language barrier.

He cannot use his language barrier to make excuses for his derogatory comments about gay people and those with cognitive delays. He has lived in the United States long enough to know that these comments are unacceptable.

Furthermore, when his parents said that he was often rude that was very revealing. Although Juan Pablo says he “likes to be honest”, this type of directness is sometimes even too much for North Americans. But according to Edward T. Hall’s theory of high context communication among Latin’s, Juan Pablo’s communication style would be highly inappropriate for a culture that likes to handle conflict in a more indirect way than spelling it out the way he did. I gather his style would not be a big hit among Latin people who are known for their exceptional politeness.

And by the way, Juan Pablo, you cannot blame your language barrier for not knowing how to say: “I love you” or “Will you marry me?” But blame it on something else. Sometimes, “it’s not easy” but it’s not “okay”. I have two pieces of advice for you: seek a therapist and get a thesaurus.

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