Many companies strive to diversify their workforce by focusing on recruiting and hiring workers of different cultural backgrounds and nationalities. A multicultural workforce can offer benefits such as a broader range of perspectives and a greater ability to compete in the global marketplace. Introducing new languages and cultures into a work environment can also create barriers that must be overcome.
Language barriers can cause simple tasks in daily life to be difficult. The enjoyment from small pleasures such as reading and engaging in social interaction can be compromised. Issues from language barriers can occur on a global scale as more businesses relocate abroad, or on a community-based level as a family settles in a neighborhood that speaks another language. Regardless of the setting, issues from language barriers can affect the quality of life for all those involved.
Cultural and language differences can hinder effective communication. Workers who are not fluent in the primary language used in the workplace may have difficulty expressing their needs or responding to requests from colleagues. If their job involves customer contact, they may have difficulty understanding a customer inquiry and provide incorrect or misleading information. A customer who is unable to clearly understand the worker due to a heavy accent or lack of command of the language may become frustrated and take his business elsewhere.
Language barriers limit the capacity of individuals to learn from their environment due to the lack of comprehension and ability to communicate. The student may not be able to thoroughly understand the teacher, which significantly decreases the ability of the student to absorb the lesson. Consequently the learning process in the classroom is thwarted. If the teacher has to slow down for the student, then the rest of the class will not be adequately challenged.
If an organization is attempting to convert from a homogeneous workforce to one that is more culturally diverse, some members of the original workforce may resist the change. They may be unwilling or unable to adapt to the ways of workers from different cultural backgrounds than their own and may even resent their presence. For management, resistance poses a significant challenge to creating a work environment that fosters teamwork and harmony, and employee morale may suffer if management cannot find ways to overcome this barrier.
Language barriers prevent the free flow of information. Two groups that speak different languages may have a valuable perspective on solving the same issue. However without the capability to communicate the differing ideas, the two groups miss out on new knowledge. It can be difficult for people who speak different languages to learn from each other. During travel it can also weaken the cultural experience. Tourists may not understand the full cultural implications of events, sites and tradition.
Development of Cliques
A diverse workforce could lead to the formation of cliques where workers of similar cultural backgrounds or who speak the same primary language bond together. Individuals may have little social interaction with those outside of their clique, engaging them only out of business necessity. In culturally integrated work groups, some members may choose to speak their primary language with each other instead of the primary workplace language, leaving others to feel they are being excluded from the conversation.
The inability to speak in the native language prevents individuals from being able to fully express their personality and form bonds with others. The individual may feel isolated from the rest of the population. Language barriers can foment discrimination and separation of groups. Groups that share the same language may avoid other language groups. Professional growth is also hindered if the individual is not able to communicate with co-workers on a deeper level.
Managers may face the obstacle of having to adapt their management style to meet the needs of workers from a different culture. Workers from Latin American countries, for instance, often believe that asking questions of a supervisor is a sign of disrespect and that they should simply do as they are told. A supervisor who implements an open-door policy may become frustrated with the lack of input from these workers and have to take steps to convince them that their suggestions are encouraged and valued.
Language barriers can cause intense frustration for all parties involved. A person may feel inadequate, shameful and sad for not being able to understand and share simple ideas. People who are not able to speak the native language may grow frustrated at the missed opportunities, embarrassing mistakes, serious consequences and negative attitudes from others. A person that knows the native language may be frustrated at someone else for not knowing the language. This frustration can manifest in the form of hostility, avoidance or resentment.