language barriers represented by different date formats, symbols, color, and language.

What are language barriers and how can you overcome them?

Breaking down language barriers is critical when entering new markets

When you do business with customers in their mother tongue, their perception of you changes. You become more credible. You reduce barriers to entry, improve customer experiences, and build brand trust

The outcome: individuals are 12x more likely to engage with you.

But language barriers don’t just refer to language differences.

Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, highlights the language barriers that exist even when you speak the same language :

“I remember a trip I took to Australia. One day I was on a bus and heard an American accent. I turned and struck up a conversation. I immediately felt connected to them, we could speak the same language, understand the same slang. As a stranger in a strange city, for that brief moment, I felt like I belonged, and because of it, I trusted those strangers on the bus more than any other passengers…. No matter where we go, we trust those with whom we are able to perceive common values or beliefs.”

To help you understand the full spectrum of language barriers, their impact on international business, and how to overcome them, follow along below. 

First up, a quick overview of what language barriers are.

What are language barriers?

Language barriers are any barrier in communication between individuals that lead to misunderstandings. Essentially, language barriers can fall under two main categories: linguistic barriers and cultural barriers.

Linguistic differences are often the first barrier to communication, but cultural differences can make it just as difficult to communicate.

Think about it. It’s a lot easier to build a relationship with someone who speaks the same language. And even easier if you have cultural similarities and/or shared beliefs that give you a sense of belonging and shared identity. Maybe you like the same baseball team, went to the same university, or come from the same neighborhood, city, or country. 

In business, it’s the same. You often only get one shot at building that relationship and breaking down barriers, so you gotta get all the elements right from the get-go. 

But overcoming these challenges when expanding to new markets is no easy feat. Yes, translation is an excellent place to start. 

But you need to be familiar with popular culture, slang, traditions, dialects, and a lot more, if you want customers to truly feel at home on your website or in your app

You’ll also need to adapt design. You’ll want to make sure content, products, and services flow as customers expect. You’ll want to change colors, symbols, tone, and so much more, to deliver hyperpersonalized experiences that resonate with customers.

Let’s explore some of the different types of language barriers in more detail.

Most common types of language barriers and impacts on business

For effective global communication, you’ll need to create a checklist of all the language barriers you might run into. A good place to start is to jot down how you communicate with your customers and prioritize those that are most important. For example, emails, ads, websites, apps, etc. Then check which types of language barriers apply to each one.

Spoken language and dialects

Imagine chatting with someone from the same country, but their way of speaking makes it hard for you to understand what they’re saying. Now, think about someone who’s from another country and speaks a different language. Communication is going to be even harder. 

In some languages, even tone errors can completely change the meaning of words. Take the word xióngmāo (panda) in Mandarin, for example. The word xiōngmáo is spelled the same but has a slight accent change that alters the pronunciation, which changes the meaning to chest hair. Then there’s the confusing case of homophones – words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings (and often spellings). 

There’s no quick fix when it comes to tackling spoken language barriers in business. Either you enroll your customer-facing teams on language courses or hire sales reps, customer success, and support teams who speak the local languages of your international markets.

Grammar, syntax, and formatting in written communication

Grammar, syntax, and formatting differences can create language barriers and lead to more back-and-forth communication than intended – going from confusion to frustration and finally, lack of trust. 

Think about something as simple as dates. In Europe 10/02/2024 is 10th February, 2024. In the States, it’s 2nd October, 2024. Imagine booking a meeting with someone who uses a different date format, and they fail to show up. You end up exchanging several emails before realizing the error. 

While there are plenty of tools that can help you translate written communication, like emails, websites, and customer support messages, you should make sure they come with the option to add a translation memory, glossary, and style guide. Otherwise, machines won’t pick up on cultural differences, like date formats and currencies.

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When it comes to written communication, customers often want quick responses, especially when reaching out to customer services. It’s likely that you copy and paste translations from Google Translate or DeepL, or use a language service provider. But this is likely increasing your response times, leaving customers getting more and more frustrated as time goes by.

Need a more efficient way to support your customers?

Check out this multilingual plugin that connects to your support and sales tools. It lets teams chat with non-native customers in 100+ languages in real-time – without switching between tools.

Technical jargon in business

Industry jargon can be a huge language barrier, not just for those reading text but also for those translating it. If you can avoid technical jargon, all the better. But in some industries, like healthcare, finance, and legal services, it’s impossible. 

To effectively communicate technical technical jargon in another language, you’ll often need to call in linguistic and industry experts. Or provide translators with as much context as possible. Think visual context, and any other commentary that you think would help translate technical jargon.

Colors, symbols, and imagery in design

Colors, symbols, and imagery speak volumes. Their meanings vary wildly from one country and culture to another, so it’s important you don’t get caught out when promoting your brand in another country. Customers should believe you’ve tailored your communication for them. 

Customers will know if you’ve gone that extra mile to understand how to communicate in their language. Not to mention, they’ll be less confused if you use the correct symbols, colors, and imagery.

Navigating these barriers of communication is important if you want to build trust and succeed in new markets. So let’s take a look at how you can overcome them.

How to overcome language barriers?

Learn new languages

Nothing opens your mind to diverse perspectives and lets you empathize with other cultures than learning a new language. 

Learning a foreign language like Spanish or Mandarin can be beneficial, but it takes time to learn languages and businesses don’t have time to wait until employees are good enough in any given language to start communicating with customers in their native language.

That being said, offering language classes does demonstrate a commitment to fostering a multilingual and inclusive workplace. By recognizing the value of linguistic diversity, businesses can enhance their cultural understanding. 

Build a remote team

Building a remote workforce means that you’ll have a huge pool of different cultures and languages to tap into. Additionally, you’ll cultivate a multilingual business environment and emphasize respect for linguistic diversity to create an inclusive and productive workplace.

As a localization and translation management company, there was never any question about building a fully remote team. Our mission is to break down borders and create a world where choice isn’t limited by language, and a remote team helps us better understand language barriers and how to overcome them. 

While most Lokalisers are based in Europe, the diversity of backgrounds is striking, with all continents except Antarctica represented. Currently, we have colleagues with a registered base in more than 44 countries around the world, not only in all corners of Europe, but also in many diverse places in Asia as well as South, Central, and North America. 

Use plain language

It’s always best to use plain language when you can so that your products and services are clear to the majority. This means getting rid of jargon where possible and avoiding complex sentence structures or language. It’s all about keeping it simple. 

Also, keep in mind the audience. What works in one country might not work in another. Humor, for example, is well-received in a business context in some countries but not in others. Humor is also notoriously difficult to translate. 

Translate your content

Translation plays a crucial role in bridging cultural gaps, facilitating global communication, and driving business growth.

But when we talk about translation, we’re not just referring to word-for-word substitutions. Translation encompasses the art of conveying ideas, making them accessible and engaging to new audiences in different languages. 

As globalization becomes the business standard, the need for various types of translations has surged, becoming essential in industries such as healthcare, finance, and law. 

Businesses that translate their content into the native languages of their customers can not only extend their reach but also connect more deeply with their target audiences. 

76% of online consumers prefer to buy products with information in their native language, illustrating the immense value of translation for businesses.

Whether it’s about bridging linguistic gaps, facilitating global communication, or supporting business growth, translation has a key role to play. Remember though, success in translation means capturing more than just words – it’s about catching the meaning behind them, with a tone that’s just right for your audience.

Localize your content

Localization goes a step further than translation in breaking down language barriers. 

Translation is often the first step in the localization process. Next, you’ll need to adapt design, user experience, formatting, cultural elements, tone, slang, and more, to make sure nothing feels out of place.

There is a lot to think about when localizing content, and it’s not easy keeping teams on the same page. You need to involve developers, designers, marketers, and translators – teams that all work with different tools, file formats, and have different priorities. 

Lokalise is a translation and localization platform that helps businesses manage their translation and localization processes. It’s a single source of truth, where every team can connect their tech stack and work together to create a fully localized experience. 

Final thoughts

If you fail to break down language barriers before entering new markets, you risk missing out on a huge opportunity: building trust among customers from the very beginning.

It’s not often customers will give you a second chance.

By understanding the impact of language barriers and implementing practical strategies to overcome them, you’ll achieve success on a global scale.

Using reliable translation services and tools, building a remote team, and localizing your content are just a few strategies that can help you go global with a bang. 

Take a look at how some of our customers were able to break down language barriers and go global through proper localization and translation management.

We also invite you to share your own experiences and insights on overcoming language barriers. If you want to work together to break down language barriers, get in touch.

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