By Sunniva Heggertveit-Aoudia
In my role as international coach/trainer/consultant I have come across several people who have questions when it comes to communicating in another language: Will I be able to explain to my mentor what I really mean? How can I be sure that my sub-contractor in Country X understands me? Will I be able to transmit the training content in what is now my fourth language? What language level can I expect from my foreign staff?
These are all very relevant questions in our cross-cultural international world. We want to say what we mean, and we want others to receive what we send—which can be hard enough even when we have the same mother tongue.
It is good that we strive to communicate effectively, and at an advanced level when speaking a foreign language. But these days I find that we often need to be pragmatic and instead strive for “what is good enough.” Which brings me to another question: how do we know what is good enough?
A good start would be to consider the following two key questions;
- Did I express what I wanted? (Even if it took longer than desired)
- Did the receiver get the message that I wanted to transmit?
Getting a “yes” to both, communication should in principal be good enough, whether it is oral or written communication. If you get “no” or “maybe,” ask yourself what you could have done differently. And if you manage someone who is trying to learn your language, you can ask these questions to your employee to help him/her progress.
For those who speak multiple languages, if you convey uncertainty, that is what will be received. If you talk with confidence, even knowing you make lots of mistakes, the receiver will look beyond your flaws and listen to the message you are giving. I have seen people deliver speeches in really poor English, but with such charm and ease that a strong accent, mistakes, asking people for help to find words, and strange translations only added color and fun to the presentation.
And what if you have an accent? It is likely it will never go away, so take it as part of your personality! Some people do succeed in copying the accent of the language they are learning, which is a good goal, but not necessary. The main objective is to have people understand you, not to sound exactly like them.
For those of you lucky enough to have English as your mother tongue, I would recommend starting to learn another language. When traveling you will likely connect with people at another level, you get great brain exercise and you will probably start communicating more efficiently with all those foreigners who are trying hard to master your language. You will find yourself understanding their creative explanations when you have had to be creative in another language yourself.
Effective communication in a foreign language should include the receiver and sender understanding the same thing, with willingness from both sides to be creative and open- and a little humor doesn’t hurt, either.
Bonne chance! Good luck! Lykke til! Viel Glück!
Sunniva Heggertveit-Aoudia, owner of NORSUN Diversity and Cross-Culture Consulting, is a consultant, trainer and coach (CPCC, ACC). She has more than 20 diverse years of experience from diversity & inclusion, human resources, and customer relations. She is a diversity specialist with deep knowledge on working across cultures.