Oct 25, 2021

This Practice Is Making Language Barriers Worse

4 min read

The importance of language in connecting with others is nothing new. People are social creatures who need to be able to communicate with friends, family, neighbors, strangers, coworkers and clients.


As a result, people have long understood the significance of overcoming language barriers.


But successfully doing so remains a challenge for many, and now the data shows that how we’ve attempted to solve the problem has been making matters worse.


Language barriers are called “barriers” because of the wall that exists between native and non-native speakers of a language. For many, the natural way to deal with that barrier is to hop over it instead of removing it. Even easier than that is getting the smaller group to hop over it for you.


That’s what we do when we attempt to solve language barriers by requiring everyone to know one language.


Why One Language Isn’t the Answer


It’s only natural to fall in line with what has been accepted as the easiest solution, even if a better one exists.


And at first glance, it makes sense that making everyone speak one language would solve the language barrier problem.


Why doesn’t it?


Because it turns a two-way divide into a one-sided problem. Instead of both sides working to remove a barrier, it becomes one side’s responsibility to meet the other where they are.


Rather than removing the barrier, it places the weight of crossing it on someone else’s shoulders – a heavy weight considering how challenging it is to learn a new language, let alone become fluent.


And language is powerful, so those who are more fluent have more power: the power to better communicate in society and connect with others.


Isolating Non-Speakers


When people prize one language above all others, it’s easy for those who aren’t native speakers to become isolated. It’s not uncommon for them to be left out of important conversations or for their words to go unheard because hearing them takes too much effort.


In many circumstances, non-native speakers are also judged for their competency in a language. This can create insecurities that make it hard to connect with others.


On the other hand, those who expect everyone to speak their language are less likely to try to connect with people who don’t.


Moreover, having to put so much processing power into choosing your words, worrying about saying the wrong thing, and being aware of not meeting others’ expectations thickens the language barrier.


It’s why studies show that sharing a native language results in better problem solving, better communication and an affinity towards the other person.


Encouraging an “Us” vs “Them” Mentality


Requiring people to speak one language to fit in encourages people to separate into groups based on language ability. Group sociology explains that once someone identifies with a group, it’s easy for thinking to become “us” vs “them” – whether conscious or not.


This is the case on a large social scale and in smaller environments, like the workplace. When interacting with someone who speaks another language or has a different background, people begin to have a sense of “they’re not one of us” or “I’m not one of them.”


According to social identity theory, people “will attribute negative intentions to the words and acts of out-group members, leading to a cooling of the relationship and a divergence of outlook between two language groups.”


Hindering Trust Formation


Research on the correlation between language and trust formation has found that speaking different native languages makes it harder to form trust.


One reason is that anxiety and low self-esteem about one’s fluency makes one less likely to open up. At the same time, others are less likely to trust someone who is unwilling to open up.


The same study revealed that people attribute low competence and dependability to those who don’t speak their language well, negatively impacting trust formation among colleagues.


Individuals with a different native language are also prone to code-switching (switching between languages). Code-switching occurs when the speaker’s native tongue is more efficient, they can’t find the right words or they’re experiencing cognitive overload. Others have a hard time trusting those who practice code-switching.


You may think that if speaking a different language hinders trust formation, requiring everyone to speak one would solve the problem. In truth, it’s placing this requirement on one group that results in their anxiety, inability to open up and the need for code-switching.


But people still need to communicate, so how can you remove the language barrier without placing that requirement on one group?


Breaking Barriers With Interpretation and Translation


The best way to solve a language barrier isn’t to hop the fence but to remove it altogether, and that’s precisely what interpretation services do.


An interpreter is someone who speaks both languages on either side of the barrier fluently. They replace the barrier, serving as a middle man to help each party communicate with the other.


As a result, low proficiency speakers don’t have to struggle to communicate, so they can relax and speak freely. For employees and clients, this is vital for establishing rapport and creating the mental room for bonding and trust-building that doesn’t otherwise exist.


Translation services provide the same benefits as interpretation but for the written word, including legal documents, pamphlets, books, presentations and anything else you may need to share.


As more people have realized these benefits, tools like Google Translate have come out. Still, AI can’t replace humans at these functions. Where humans can recognize context, tone, body language, cultural factors and language’s general subjective nature, AI is unable to do so and loses the personal touch.


With human interpretation and translation, you maintain the human core of connecting with others while removing all language-related obstacles.


In the modern-day, using these services is easier and more conducive to building relationships than requiring everyone to speak a single language.