Tips for Solving Language Barriers When Working With Volunteers

Volunteer boards and committees sometimes struggle to ensure all of their members are on the same page during an important decision-making process. And, for growing global organizations, this challenge can sometimes be exacerbated by language barriers.

The Association of Information Systems (AIS), a Raybourn Group International client since 2012, is relatively lucky that English is the common language for our core audiences (current and prospective members that include information systems students, recent graduates, working professionals, and higher education faculty specializing in business and IT). We don’t translate our publications, website, or email messaging into multiple languages as many global societies do.

We know, however, that not all AIS members have the same level of proficiency in English, especially when it becomes apparent during a committee meeting that some participants are struggling to understand each other.

Here are a few tips for volunteer committees, boards, and association management professionals who serve on or work with committees that include non-English speaking members.

  1. Be patient. Yes, it is frustrating when volunteers don’t seem prepared for a big discussion. But in the case of language barriers, the individual may have read the materials in advance and not fully comprehended them. Take extra care to ensure everyone understands the information presented before making decisions based on that information.
  2. Be thorough. Some may have a better understanding of English when it is in writing; others may not read English well but understand when it is verbalized. Always provide advance material in writing to help volunteers be prepared for deliberations. Give a verbal overview of the advance material before beginning the discussion. Try not to introduce unanticipated new information during a meeting; non-English speakers may not comprehend that information as readily as the other members. Remember point number one—just because everyone has read or heard the same information, don’t assume they all have the same level of understanding.
  3. Take it slow. Try not to rush the conversation, even if it seems like everyone is on the same page. Non-English speakers may need more time to process what they are hearing and articulate their thoughts. They may have wonderful ideas to contribute to the conversation or decision at hand, but that will get lost if the group hastily moves forward. Help the group slow down so that everyone’s contributions can be included.
  4. Be kind. Imagine if you were the only person in a group who isn’t proficient in a common language. You may not feel comfortable admitting you don’t understand everything that is being discussed. Help your volunteers be sensitive to this. Consider how to help those who are not fluent in the language by using audio/visual materials like video or speaking more slowly and clearly.

The rewards of a diverse, global perspective far outweigh the challenges of language barriers. How are you overcoming these challenges in your group?