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My Experience in Removing Language Barriers

Anteneh Zewde shares his insights on removing language barriers as a global reliability leader and as a champion of Engineers Without Borders.  Are you Communicating with FINESSE?
Anteneh Zewde shares his insights on removing language barriers as a global reliability leader and as a champion of Engineers Without Borders.

Working in a country that does not speak your native language can be challenging, especially when trying to communicate technical information. Every exchange of information can become difficult, if not unproductive, if words cannot be communicated in a way both parties understand. Working in a global workforce, clear communications and understanding one another are essential to achieving common objectives. My personal experience of arriving in the United States, learning English as my third language, supporting DuPont manufacturing plants in Asia Pacific, and my volunteerism with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has taught me how to overcome language barriers.

I’ve learned to remove language barriers by:

Avoiding Idioms and jargon

When I was trying to learn the English language basics, I found myself "lost" when people added idioms in their verbal conversations or their written communications. Many languages share idioms on occasion, but adding them to technical communication in the business world makes it harder for the audience to understand. Phrases like "cutting corners," "rocket science," "bells and whistles," and "nuts and bolts"—to name a few—are confusing to those from a different culture. Simply use plain language so others can easily understand you.

Being patient

My former writing and reading teacher used to tell me that “asking is always free.” Someone from another country who does not speak your native language may have many questions. As you are trying to speed through your conversation, be sure they understand you before getting into your next topic or task. Be patient, as it may be hard for the other person to understand everything you are saying, and they may need more time than teammates who speak the same language. Allowing extra time and having patience to answer questions will always help a non-native speaker.

Speaking slowly and clearly

My native language is normally fast-paced. When I was in the process of learning English, many people told me to speak slowly. When I did, internally I thought I was talking very slowly, but as a result, people better understood me. Cleary enunciating each word at a much slower speed makes it easier for the other person to understand, avoiding miscommunication and confusion.

Checking for understanding and repetition

When I work with my Asia Pacific colleagues, I always remind myself how I started to learn English. That reminder helps me to slow down and check their understanding before we move on to the next topic or close our meeting. As a non-native speaker, it is easy to be nervous and shy about asking questions, so it’s important for the native language colleague to stop and check the non-native colleague's understanding frequently. Repetition is always helpful, as it enables the non-native speaker to check their understanding. When a point doesn’t make sense, just ask again. It is better to gain that understanding than be on "different pages" at the end of the meeting!

Utilizing visual methods of communication

During my volunteer work with EWB, I had the opportunity to work on a project in my home country. Working with the community on the ground was much easier for me as they spoke my native language. It was hard for the rest of my EWB team members since they were dealing with non-English speakers. I helped the team by serving as a translator, and one of the tools I used was the visual method of communication. Texting via WhatsApp, sending a diagram or a photo through text and video calls helped me communicate what we were looking for in a simple way that everyone could understand. Sometimes drawings and pictures with fewer words give better clues for communication, and they stimulate one's mind for better problem solving. When one method is not effective, try to use another option to align the team.

Overcoming Language Barriers

As people around the world work together at a faster pace, language barriers can be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to stop us from working together effectively and efficiently. If we use some of the approaches mentioned above with the right mindset, it will help ease the language barrier issue and improve our productivity. The suggestions in this article worked for me on both ends of the language barrier, and I believe they can work for anyone.


Anteneh Zewde is a Global Reliability & Maintenance Leader for DuPont Electronics & Industrial. He has 25 years of experience in various roles in design & development, reliability, maintenance, manufacturing support, project engineering, and leadership roles along with two patents. He is an active volunteer for EWB, leading the Eastern Pennsylvania & Delaware region projects across the world. He received the EWB Exceptional Leadership Award in 2022. Anteneh graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and from Drexel University with an M.B.A.


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