Mind Your Language: Why It’s Vital In Business Communication

Every day, we communicate in one language or another. In short, communication means an exchange of information or idea between a communicator/sender and a receiver. The information is shared either offline (face-to-face or “meatspace”), or online (virtually or cyberspace). Undeniably, communication is an essential part of our daily life. In the workplace, effective communication is integral to business success. However, are you currently facing some challenges with work-related communication? Do you have trouble interacting with people within and outside your organisation? Are there times you were being misunderstood or misinterpreted?… Well, these are lingering questions that beg answers. So let’s identify what the barriers are in business communication, and how we can overcome them.

A female language tutor with her arms folded, leaning against a blackboard with the word "Hello" written in various languages
Language is essential in our daily communication at work and outside of work. No matter what languages you are fluent in, use them appropriately in business communication.
Image by Gpointstudio from Freepik

Language Is One Of The Three Main Barriers To Business Communication

For starters, do know that communication breakdown is not uncommon in the workplace. Communication barriers can create unnecessary problems, such as misunderstandings and misinterpretation of information. If left to fester, they will affect work productivity and company success. Basically, there are three main categories of communication barriers: language, emotional and physical.

Some of us might remember the popular British sitcom of the late 1970s called ‘Mind Your Language’. Mr Jeremy Brown, the affable English teacher had a jolly hard time, not only to teach English to a classroom of foreign students, but also to put up with their endless antics and misinterpretation of the English language. Due to the differences in their languages, social backgrounds, beliefs, culture, etc., their light banters would usually escalate into squabbles and almost-fist-fights. Simply because of language barrier. Ah, didn’t we know that it was all acted out just for laughs?

To those who are new to ‘Mind Your Language’, here’s Season 1, Episode 1.

Well, humour aside… Language barrier is indeed a common problem from the classroom to the boardroom. It is defined as a barrier to communication resulting from speaking or writing different languages. Though the term “language barrier” usually refers to the communication gap resulting from two people communicating in different languages, there are a variety of language communication barriers you might encounter at work. But first, let’s look into the language itself.

1.0 The Languages Used

The key barrier to business communication is none other than the language itself. For the purpose of uniformity, let’s establish that the English language (English) is your primary language for our analogy. Your level of proficiency in English, or other languages, plays an important part in communication. Generally, the more proficient you are the fewer barriers you will have.

A photo taken across  River Thames showing Palace of Westminster, Big Ben and Westminster Bridge at sunset
English is considered the lingua franca (common language) of not only international business but also of all kinds of communication globally. It is spoken and understood broadly by the majority of the population in most parts of the world.
From left to right: Palace of Westminster, Big Ben and Westminster Bridge at sunset, London, England.
Image by Vwalakte from Freepik

Nowadays, many local businesses have gone or are going global. Thanks to the World Wide Web, and modern communication technology, hardware and applications. They keep the business community and society in general connected 24/7. As businesses go seamless, communication crosses more borders. Therefore, if your career or business involves interacting with any person especially from any non-English speaking country, the likelihood of you encountering language communication barriers is inevitable.

So how do we overcome foreign languages barrier? Let’s consider the following solutions :-

1.1 In-House Translators And Professional Translators Or Interpreters

If you have someone in your organisation who is able to communicate (spoken and written) in the foreign language of concern, then seek their assistance first. However, if the level of the communication is beyond their translation ability, maybe because it’s highly confidential or overly technical, it’s better to engage a paid professional translator or interpreter.

Language translator - A man of a foreign descent in green t-shirt pointing at a computer screen as though he's explaining something to two seated Asian female counterparts
As businesses go global, the demand for professional translators and interpreters gets higher. When communication hits a snag with your foreign counterparts, it’s best to seek professional help.
Image by Mimi Thian from Unsplash

However, do weigh in on the need to employ a communication liaison officer who is fluent in the foreign language of concern if it is more cost efficient to do so.

1.2 Friendly Translators Or Interpreters

Another option is to enlist help from your network of friends. Whilst this may be what friends will do for one another for free (or for coffee), it’s advisable to keep official things, official. However, do exercise discretion as to the amount of disclosure you are willing to share with ‘unauthorised’ third parties, so as to avoid any legal implication later on.

1.3 Pocket Translators

If you do not have the privilege of an in-house, professional or friendly translator/interpreter, the next option is the handy pocket translator. It is ideal for interpreting individual words and short phrases. This device is a ‘life-saving’ tool in times of urgency, but for official business purposes, it’s still better to fall back on a human translator or interpreter.

1.4 Online Translators

For business writing, you are spoilt for choice by a number of free online translators in the market. They are helpful for general and non-technical translations. However, for more official and technical translations, please use human professional translators.

1.5 Unfamiliar Accents

What if the receiver understands i.e. reads and writes English, but speaks in an unfamiliar accent? That can be rather daunting. Under such circumstance, you just need to be patient and clarify until the both of you reach a ‘mutual understanding’. If all else fails, whip out your pocket translator, or just resort to written communication.

2.0 The Expressions Of Language Used

A breakdown in communication often occurs when either the communicator or receiver is using inappropriate expressions of the language. Even though both parties may be proficient in English, it is important to use the right expressions in business communication. Whilst one’s expressions of the language can be quickly and easily dismissed when spoken, it is however distinctly glaring in the written form.

Language barrier? Woman biting pencil in frustration whilst sitting in front of her laptop
It can be frustrating when a breakdown in communication occurs whilst on the job. Find out why your message is being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Could it be due to the inappropriate expressions of the language used?
Image by @jeshoots from Unsplash

Here are some examples of inappropriate expressions of English that you should avoid for business writing :-

2.1 Use Of Jargon And Slang

In today’s social media i.e. Twitter, WhatsApp, and other text messengers, where the short and snappy rule, incomprehensible phrases have unfortunately flooded into business communication. Avoid using jargon, whether spoken or written, unless you’re communicating with like-minded people in the same profession or industry. For business writing, the key to effective communication is to keep it simple and clear. Additionally, do not use slang words or phrases, although it is absolutely cool to do so in your social circle.

For example a “Message to the Sales Team” :-

Laced With Jargon And Slang WordsBusiness-Official
Hey y’all, you’d better bring your ‘A’ game. Pronto. Boss flipped! Q1 sales sucked. He wanna see some low hanging fruits ASAP for this Q!Hi All, please come to the meeting prepared, immediately. Boss is not happy with first quarter’s sales figure. He wants to see some achievable profit ASAP for this quarter.
Jargon : Bring your ‘A’ game (meaning come to the meeting prepared)
Jargon : Low hanging fruit (meaning easy, reachable and quick profit)
Slang/Informal words : hey, y’all (you all), pronto, flipped, sucked, wanna, Q1, Q

Do maintain a corporate, or business-like decorum in your workplace even though you’re communicating within your organisation. All the more so when corresponding with your clients and business associates.

2.2 Use Of Punctuations

When you’re stating facts and figures, ensure to add punctuations such as comma, period (full stop), question mark, exclamation point, etc.  

Missing Or Incorrect PunctuationsCorrect Punctuations
GBP 2518.7 GBP 2,518.70
Let’s eat BossLet’s eat, Boss.
(This is the classic example of a life saved by a comma)
Dear Sally,
Thank you? For the past services you rendered: a marvellous job indeed… Not! Many others could have performed better than you. It is with deep regret to see you. Go!
Dear Sally,
Thank you for the past services you rendered. A marvellous job indeed! Not many others could have performed better than you. It is with deep regret to see you go.
P.S. Can you imagine Sally’s bewilderment when she reads the message on the left?

Therefore, the correct usage and placement of punctuations can be a matter of ‘life and death’ in business writing.

2.3 Use Of Abbreviations, Acronyms And Initialisms

The use of abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms is very common in business writing. However, always put the reader first: will the reader find it easy to understand your message, or is it confusing? It is advisable to write out in full for the first mention of the abbreviation, acronym or initialism, and then put its short form in parentheses (or brackets). Subsequently, the abbreviation, acronym or initialism can be safely repeated elsewhere in the same communication.

For example :-

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), also called the North Atlantic Alliance, is an intergovernmental military alliance between 30 European and North American countries. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) is a body that sets broad strategic goals for NATO, which meets at two sessions per year.

NATO : acronym

PA : initialism

Here’s a detailed explanation on the four types of abbreviations.

2.4 Use Of Capitalisation

Another danger that has crept in from social media messaging into business writing is the missing capitalisation of proper nouns, pronouns, adjectives, first letter in a sentence, titles, just to name a few.

For example :-

Without CapitalisationWith Capitalisation
we are pleased to inform you that mr jeremy brown (jb) will be joining our subsidiary, a&p food packaging pte ltd on wednesday, 1 september 2021 as the new managing director. mr jb will be hosting a small tea party at banker’s club at 3.30 pm on the same day. kindly attend.We are pleased to inform you that Mr Jeremy Brown (J.B.) will be joining our subsidiary, A&P Food Packaging Pte Ltd on Wednesday, 1 September 2021 as the new Managing Director. Mr J.B. will be hosting a small tea party at Banker’s Club at 3.30 pm on the same day. Kindly attend.
There is no short cut in business writing. You wouldn’t want to portray yourself as lazy and ignorant, would you?

2.5 Use Of Emoji

Do not use emoji in lieu of words for all forms of business communication. It is simply unprofessional. You might think it is fun or funny, but the receiver might think you lack seriousness and maturity.

A screengrab of a WhatsApp message filled with several emoji
No matter how tempted you are to use emoji for business communication via text messengers such as WhatsApp and the like, it’s still a no-no. Being professional goes a long way for your company’s reputation.
Image by Author

Point Taken, So How Do I Improve My Business Communication?

Now that we’ve addressed some of the language communication barriers, they are by no means exhaustive. In addition to the foregoing suggestions, here are several tips you may consider to improve your business communication :-

  1. Practice makes perfect – the more you speak and write in proper English, the more proficient you’ll become. Hence, you’ll be able to tackle communication barriers effortlessly.
  2. Read, READ and READ SOME MORE – I cannot put more emphasis how important reading is. Invest your time to read books, guides and periodicals to boost your command of English. Important tip: pay extra attention to punctuations.
  3. Learn from industry experts – read materials, watch videos and listen to podcasts from reputable English language and/or business communication gurus.
  4. Learn new foreign language(s) – it’ll be an added advantage to you to learn the foreign language that is widely used in your career or business.
  5. Use digital writing tools – helpful online writing assistance tools such as Grammarly, Hemingway Editor, etc. can help improve your writing skills.
  6. Pore over dictionaries – whenever in doubt, always refer to various dictionaries to cross reference meanings of words. Additionally, check out their synonyms and antonyms – they help empower your vocabulary.
Some helpful tips on how to write professional emails.

Language Is Power, And That Power Is In Your Hand

There are many ways to hone your business communication skills. The first step is to brush up the primary language used at work. The better your command of the language is, the better you’ll be able to express your ideas and thoughts effectively. Thus, breaking down barriers and improving communication at work. Find time outside your working hours to pick up a new skill or two!

So, happy exploring and learning… And start communicating effectively today. But before we let you go, please cast your vote on the poll. Also, do let us know your thoughts on what you think is the most challenging barrier to effective business communication in the comment section below.

Which of the following do you find most challenging to overcome in business writing?
7 votes

This article is part of Espoletta’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives.

About Flo KHA

Backed with a solid foundation in market research, she brings to the table a wealth of knowledge in consumerism. She knows what consumers want, even when they themselves don't, and match them to their needs and wants.

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