I’ve just finished speaking at a test conference (link to softwaretest) in Copenhagen, Denmark and came away with some incredible learnings and not all test related.
First, I found out I still can’t understand a word of Danish, but that didn’t really matter because everyone spoke English to me (I envy people with fluent second languages). However, over the course of two days, I realized that most, if not all the participants spoke Danish when they were not speaking directly to me. Rightly so, since it is the language they are most comfortable with.
During my workshop, I had the participants break in to groups for discussion. All but one (who had an English only person at their table), promptly started talking in Danish. I found I was a bit lost as I am used to listening and guiding the discussions if needed. I had absolutely no idea of what was being discussed, and had to hope if the groups got stuck, they would ask for help. I didn’t need to worry, as they did fine, and when the groups presented their findings, they all did it in English.
The next day, I had an interesting conversation with Thomas, one of the local conference participants. We started talking about my language issues, and he related some of his experiences working with teams from other countries. One example he shared, was when they had meetings with teams from Finland or India, both teams switched to English for the meeting as it is the common language. This means both teams are speaking in their second language.
Thomas, who speaks excellent English, believes he cannot express about 15% of his ideas in English. If he is like me, he probably understands more than he can express, but still misses some words. However, if he is listening to someone who has trouble expressing his (or her) ideas as well, is the message really being understood? I assume this is typical for most people, so I have to wonder how much information is being lost in translation when both teams are speaking in their second language.
Then there is the other case where one team speaks English as their native tongue. Thomas explained that that sometimes the Danish team felt they couldn’t express themselves well enough to compete or argue against an idea brought up by one of the strong members of the American team. This might be partly a cultural issue, as well as a language barrier.
As a facilitator, I watch for team members who are quiet and not normally expressive. I try to find ways to make them feel comfortable enough to express their ideas safely. As members of global teams, I think we need to be aware of team members who may be at a disadvantage because of language. Something to consider might be engaging a facilitator for every meeting that involves two teams that may have communication or cultural barriers to overcome.
Another partial solution to the language problem may be to use more concrete examples to take away any misinterpretation. Technology enables teams to collaborate in many ways so we should take advantage of that.
Communication is a problem with any teams and when we add language issues, it adds even more complexity. I for one will be much more aware of what I say, and how I say it when I am speaking with teams whose native tongue is not the same as mine.