4 Tips for Overcoming Language Barriers When Outsourcing

Outsourcing tasks is one of the best ways to save time and money when running your business. However, since many Web developers, graphic designers, and other freelancers with in-demand skills are from countries where most people learn English at school rather than home, it’s important to take steps to overcome language barriers. Here are four strategies for improving professional communication with non-native English speakers.

1. Use simple language.
Using simple language is the most important step you can take to facilitate communication with non-native speakers, but this can be difficult, especially since speech and writing are becoming less formal each day, while business jargon and buzzwords seem to be evolving faster than ever. Here are some strategies for ensuring you use simple language:

  • Stick to common words (check: can the word easily be found in the dictionary?)
  • Avoid slang or metaphors when possible
  • If using jargon is necessary, include or link to brief definitions
  • Check your messages for correct spelling and grammar

2. When on the phone or Skype, speak at a steady pace.
Interviewing potential freelancers on the phone or Skype can be a good way to verify whether their English comprehension is already at the level you need and can also be an easy way to check in throughout a project. Be sure to speak at a consistent pace and add brief pauses between sentences to help the other person process what you’re saying. Listening to clips of public speakers on YouTube will show you how to speak at a measured speed and add appropriate pauses.

3. Use screenshots, diagrams, and other images when communicating.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and the great thing about communicating online is that you can use as many pictures as you want. For example, if you’re outsourcing graphic design, send several examples of logo styles that you like and color schemes that you think would work well for your company. No matter what the project, you can usually provide a screenshot or image that helps clarify what you need.

4. Regularly check for comprehension.
Don’t assume that because your overseas freelancer isn’t asking questions, that means he or she understands everything. According to Geert Hofstede, an early researcher in the field of international leadership, English-speaking countries have a markedly low “power distance” when compared to the majority of the world. This means that people in most countries have a higher deference to authority than you may be used to, which can show up as a reluctance to question one’s boss or admit that directions have been unclear.

For this same reason, don’t just ask “do you understand?” when checking for comprehension, as you may receive an automatic “yes.” Instead, ask questions that require more detailed responses, such as “can you please summarize what you plan to do for this project during the next week?”

Likewise, if you didn’t understand something the other person said, stop and ask them to explain it. This is not rude, but pretending to understand someone and then having to ask them the same question again soon after is.

With patience, overcoming language barriers is less challenging than you might expect. Communicating with non-native English speakers can take some effort, but is often a rewarding experience for both you and the freelancer. Stick with it and you will find that the pool of talent available to you will truly become global.