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Language Barriers in Communication

Communication is one of the most essential aspects of human life. Communication is how human beings interact to convey messages, information or express emotions. Language is the medium through which the process of communication takes place. Language in communication can be verbal, i.e. Using words to read, write and speak or non-verbal i.e using signs, facial expressions or body language. Despite the variety of the means of communication, messages are sometimes not comprehended or simply misunderstood.

Language Barriers

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Such breaks in communication leading to a failure in the process are called ‘noise’ or ‘communication barriers’. These barriers include cultural diversities, ambiguity in communication and language barriers.

What are Language Barriers?

Language barriers are those features of language use that result in miscomprehension or complete loss in communication. Language barriers deal with aspects of language use that make it difficult to understand. This could be because of a variety of factors like differences in educational background, level of literacy and country or area of the language user.

Types of Language Barriers

a) Foreign Language

Communication between people of different countries becomes difficult if neither of the speakers has a common language to communicate in. While knowledge of foreign languages is common practice among people certain languages are still a hurdle for people to learn and communicate. Many translation apps are available on the internet but they are not effective while communicating culture-specific use of languages like idioms, phrases, proverbs and allusions.

For example, the citizens of the USA do not just speak English as half of the population is Hispanics who speak their native language of Spanish. It, therefore, becomes necessary to be bilingual or a polyglot to be able to communicate effectively.

b) Dialects, Pidgin

Dialects are regional variants of a language and very rarely have a written script. People in different parts of a state or country develop and use a regional variety of the official language as a result of the influence of other languages or gradual changes in pronunciation of a particular language. Dialects are distinct from one another even though they have the same language as the base. English spoken in the UK has 37 dialects! The use of dialects in workplaces or areas away from where it is practised may result in miscommunication.

Pidgin is a version of the language that arises when users of two different languages create an in-between language that eases communication. Words and grammatical forms of either language are adopted into use and a pidgin is formed. This is usually a second language and is used only when speakers who know the pidgin version needed to communicate.

For example – people from the country of Papa New Guinea have adopted a pidgin from English where they make sentences like “yu no ken kaminsait” (you no can come inside) instead of “do not disturb” and they use “big school” instead of university.

c) Accents

Accents are peculiar ways of pronouncing words of a language. English is spoken in many other accents other than the standard Received Pronunciation. Accents occur when speakers belonging to different regions or countries speak a language not their own. Their mother tongue will influence how they pronounce words in the foreign language. This causes difficulty in understanding what is being said.

For example – although English is a universally spoken language, the accents adopted by each country easily reveal which part of the world they come from. So, we can recognize accents like British, American, African, Indian, Australian, Irish, far Eastern, etc.

d) Jargon and Slang

Jargon is language or words that are specific to a particular profession. Excessive use of jargon in communication may make comprehension difficult. For example – a doctor’s prescription, the results of a medical test, financial and legal documents need interpretation of experts for the layman.

Slang refers to those words or expressions that are peculiar to a group of persons who are familiar with it. It is an informal language that persons of a close-knit group coin to indicate shared experience or emotion. It may be considered offensive by people who are not familiar with it.

For example, use a lot of slang words that are not the most familiar with Millennials or the baby boomers. For example, words such as ‘dope’ or ‘lit’ (used to emphasize something which is personally liked) are some of the slang words which are commonly used by Gen Z teens today, which the millennials or the baby boomers are relatively unaware of.

e) Word Choice – ambiguity, verbosity

The choice of words made by a speaker is a result of his/ her knowledge and mastery of the language. However, one must be careful while framing sentences or using particular being aware of the multiple meanings of the words (connotative, denotative) and their uses in idioms and phrases. Idioms and phrases are expressions typical to a language. It requires practice and continuous reading to become familiar with the meaning they convey and to understand how they are to be used in conversations and writing.

For example – when someone says “Stop pulling my leg all the time”, it makes an ambiguous sentence as the listener isn’t sure if the speaker means their leg or if it’s the idiom being used.

Verbosity or wordiness can also make the message obscure. The use of unfamiliar words or more words creates fatigue in the mind of the reader making for a break in communication.

For example – a simple sentence like “she likes to enjoy sunsets” can be made verbose by framing a sentence like “She has the preference for relishing eventide.”

f) Literacy and Vocabulary

Effective communication also depends on the literacy level of the users of the language. The far eastern countries such as Japan, Korea etc prefer their native languages over English and pursue their formal education in Mandarin or Hangeul. Hence they get limited access or exposure to the language of English. This results in limited vocabulary and very little reading of the literature of the English language. Communicating in English at a cosmopolitan workplace makes speakers conscious of their limitations in the use of language and how it becomes a barrier to communication.

g) Grammar and Spelling

Grammatical errors while speaking or writing distort the message and therefore act as a barrier to communication.

For example –

  1. Agreement between subject and verb
    The recommendations suggested is carried out. (the subject ‘recommendations’ and the verb ‘is’ do not agree as one is plural and the other is singular) the correct form of the sentence would be – The recommendations suggested are carried out.
  2. Mismatch between pronoun and noun
    Mr. Jeff has been assigned the task. It is expected that she complete it within the time limit allocated.
  3. Use of between and among
    The amount is to be divided equally among all of you. The two brothers may decide between them how much they choose to share with the rest. (Among implies a number more than two while between indicates only two)

Spelling errors too affect communication.

For example – sentences involving the use of their, there and they’re

  1. The employees received their share of the profits. (possessive pronoun)
  2. There are sixty women working here. (demonstrative adjective)
  3. The management ensures that they’re informed of all issues concerning the company (contracted form of ‘they are’)

Confusion in the use of homophones

  1. Principal – Principle
  2. Weather – Whether
  3. Stationary – Stationery
  4. Story – Storey

Tips to Overcome Language Barriers

Develop proficiency in the language: The foremost requirement while communicating is a good level of proficiency in the respective language.

However, certain other activities may also aid in this attempt.

  1. Learning a foreign language or a vernacular, at least the words and sentences that are essential is a good technique to survive in an unfamiliar country.
  2. Watching English movies will ensure exposure to a variety of dialects, accents and tones.
  3. Dictionaries, Thesaurus and online apps will help understanding jargon, slang, idioms and phrases.
  4. Speaking and writing using simple, precise and clear language will help avoid ambiguity and verbosity.
  5. Attending language classes or taking up online courses, practice activity books and online exercises will come in handy for students who need training in English.
  6. The use of grammar and spell check apps will reduce errors in writing and speaking.

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