Language shapes us

Whether you’re working in multilingual groups within Canada, or in international partnerships, language is an essential collaborator. Because English is a dominant language in Canada and around the world, we often default to it. This can leave people feeling like they can’t bring their whole selves to a process, or, in contexts where collaborators aren’t fully fluent in each other’s languages, it can create a situation where people are actually failing to see and hear each other. Acknowledging and incorporating the plurality of languages within a group can provide more opportunities for connection.

  • Invite all the languages in the room. This not only expands the levels of possible communication in the group, but invites a richer and more meaningful experience for everyone. This might mean welcoming people to lead or do a particular exercise in a language of their choice, or bringing a word or phrase into a group discussion that provides new meaning the dominant language doesn’t have.
  • Consider methods of translation. There are lots of tools for working across languages now — from human delivered interpretation like live ASL to spoken language, to AI simultaneous voice to text translation such as Wordly, to Zoom’s feature where a person can do closed captioning. Context, people and projects will determine what tools fit best. But in our experience, none of these work very well if you can’t see and/or hear the original “speaker” at the same time as the translation. So much is communicated in body language and tone of voice.
  • Make space for misunderstanding. No method of translation is perfect. When working across languages, it’s important to make time to ensure that people are receiving what others are saying. This sounds obvious, but is often missed.
  • Have a signal for when you’re lost. Make sure that the whole group knows a way that they can indicate when they’ve not understood. This could be via a physical hand gesture or a symbol in the chat feature of a meeting space. Make sure people know that their use of this symbol or gesture is welcome.
  • Hire and nominate official and unofficial translators in the room. In practice, sometimes budget or other constraints means that there is no official translator in the room. In some processes, this is not acceptable. In many contexts, official translation should be prioritized and compensated. Effective translation is a craft and skill, and it can be very draining work even for professional translators. In more informal multilingual  processes, where there is no official translator role, there will often be people who are fluent in two or more languages in the group – especially in a collaboration between two countries. If these people are willing, it is such a gift to give time to having them clarify or translate, even if there is an AI tool officially doing that work. It is important to acknowledge the work they are contributing to the group in this, and schedule more time for it to unfold.