10 Tips For Overcoming The Language Barrier When Expanding Overseas

Being multilingual may be your end game as a multinational entrepreneur, but here are a few ways to get by in the beginning.

10 Tips For Overcoming The Language Barrier When Expanding Overseas
[Photo: Flickr user The LEAF Project]

If you thought it was a challenge to launch a business in your own country, try expanding your operations overseas. While taking in cultural, financial, and legal considerations are all important, overcoming the language barrier is arguably the most difficult challenge every day.


If you can’t communicate with your international customers and team members, then how can you expect to grow your brand? And since 96% of the world’s consumers reside outside the U.S., you can see why breaking down the language barrier is so vital.

Overcoming the language barrier can help your brand grow, but it won’t be easy in the beginning. Here are 10 tips to get started:

1. Narrow Your Market

Before you start hiring or expanding, you have to narrow down your market. Does it make much sense to go after each and every market in the world? Absolutely not.


Kunal Sarda, cofounder of international crowdsourced translation company VerbalizeIt, recommends that you find these markets by examining the advantages of each. Here are a few to consider:

  • A larger customer base potentially has a higher willingness to pay
  • Access to cheaper supply of labor or raw material could lead to cost efficiencies
  • Legal, regulatory, or other systemic factors make it easier to do business

2. Show Respect By Knowing Which Language Is Spoken

Many countries in the world have populations that speak multiple languages. For example, South Africa has 11 official languages, Singapore and Switzerland have four official languages, and even our neighbor to the North, Canada, has two official languages.

Knowing which languages are spoken in your market allows you to learn phrases and begin effective marketing campaigns in your customer’s local language. This also shows respect and admiration, since you’ve taken the time to learn and understand the local customs and language.


A great example of this is Searchmetrics, a company that started in Germany but has offices in several different countries. CEO Marcus Tober respects every office by knowing and speaking the appropriate language in the office. This has allowed his company to grow to become a large, multinational company.

3. Conduct Surveys

As Sarda explains, “Companies can drastically steepen their learning curve and avoid catastrophic mistakes by leaning on local experts.” You can also seek feedback from global brand evangelists by conducting online surveys through Qualtrics, Google Forms, Wufoo, or SurveyMonkey.

4. Translate Documents

Prior to hiring, consider translating key work documents into the native language of your new staff members. There are plenty of free tools that can help you translate documents.


While this makes communication easier, Mac McIntire, president of the Innovative Management Group, warns there could be times when “the meaning of a word used in written translation does not always correspond to the meaning you wish to convey in your work documents.”

5. Hire An Interpreter

Find someone you can trust who can give your team instructions or feedback in their local language. This will prevent any miscommunication. If there isn’t someone on your team who is fluent in both languages, you can find an interpreter through the Federation of Translators or American Translators Association. You can also do a local search for interpreters in your area.

6. Use Technology

Google Translate is still one of your best online resources to help break the language barrier since it’s simple and basic. But it has some other powerful features as well, like offering a native speaker’s pronunciation of a word or phrase.


Other free translation tools that you could use would be Bing Translator, Linguee, Prompt, or Quest Visual.

7. Avoid Idioms, Jargon, And Slang Words

When speaking English to your overseas staff, avoid any sort of confusion by using more formal English and staying away from jargon and slang words that wouldn’t be recognized in other parts of the world. Speaking slowly doesn’t hurt either.

8. Use Visual Methods Of Communication

Visual communication is an extremely powerful tool. After all, humans are essentially visual learners. This also matters when it comes to overcoming language barriers. Instead of text, you want to use pictures to convey your messages, instructions, or assignments. This means having signs, cue cards, and other visual aids for your team members to use.


9. Learn The Basics

You or your team members don’t necessarily have to become fluent in another language. But you should at least learn the basics of a new language like greetings, warnings, and work phrases. By having your team members learn at the least the basics of the predominant language in your market, you’re creating an environment where team members can coexist and succeed–and it will help you better understand your market too.

10. Seek Clarification

Never assume that you, your team members, or your customers understood what was being said the time first time around. For example, have a team demonstrate that they understood what was just asked of them. If you don’t understand a question or statement, politely ask for clarification so that you can make sure that you have the information down correctly.

Above all, don’t be shy. Maybe you just learned a couple of phrases and are a bit embarrassed about not having the dialect down. Get over it. You’re trying. And the more you speak the language, the better you’ll get at it.


John Rampton is the founder of Palo Alto, California-based Hostt, a free Joomla hosting company specializing in helping businesses with hosting their website for free, for life. He currently teaches entrepreneurship at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization composed of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. You can connect with him @johnrampton.