Avoiding the pitfalls of misunderstood language

Recently I watched a feature film in German for the first time in about 20 years. And I understood it! And I laughed at the jokes! As a German graduate from the University of York, I really shouldn’t be so surprised, but when I left university I moved away from using my foreign languages and never really went back. Instead I have made the most of the general communication aspects and linguistic science side of my studies.

So why watch that film and why blog about it? Well, my husband – who has continued to use his languages throughout his career – was lent the DVD by his German colleague. She had recommended the movie and it seemed rude not to at least give it a go. As it turned out, it was a funny, light-hearted movie about a road trip across America and we both really enjoyed it.

I decided to blog about the experience for several reasons. Firstly, following on from my piece last week about how much I love the written word, this reminded me that the spoken word is fun too. Written and spoken language, whilst having a lot in common, can be different in many ways too. Obviously there are occasions when you can write informally and when you need to speak in a formal manner, but broadly speaking there are fewer ‘rules’ to follow when you are talking.

There are words and phrases that sound great when you say them aloud and can be aided by the facial expressions that accompany them, but which could be easily misinterpreted or give the wrong impression when written down. This is apparent in many walks of life – how often have you or a colleague found a business email you sent has been misinterpreted and you’ve been misunderstood or branded ‘difficult’ for questioning a new process?

Secondly, watching a movie in a language in which I’m rather rusty reminded me that you don’t actually need to understand every word to know what’s going on. In a film where I recognised the overarching narrative and could see the actions of the characters and their faces displaying their emotions, I could work out the gist and that was usually enough.

Often in workplace communications it can feel as if people are speaking different languages (even if you’re all speaking English). This causes frustration, misunderstanding and even, at times, fear. My experience with this DVD has shown me that it doesn’t have to be like that. Here are a few ideas for avoiding issues:

  • Shared language and narrative. You need some agreement on words and phrases in the context and story of your organisation. People need to know the basic concepts of your culture to be able to understand. Perhaps consider providing an organisational ‘dictionary’ to help people, particularly when they are new.
  • Mixture of written and spoken languages. A combination of visual and linguistic clues will help smooth over some of the trickier points. It will also provide more opportunities to ask for clarification and to check that they meant what you think they did.
  • A willingness for mutual understanding. This can be the hardest thing of all. I believe that as fellow human beings we can always find some way to understand each other. But everyone has to be willing to try. It helps if there is a shared, common goal to motivate that willingness.
  • I’d love to know how this works in your organisation.

    Bis bald!

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