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Misunderstanding in the Multilingual Workplace

Picking the wrong words and meanings in multilingual communication

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

A friend recently told me about an e-mail that was sent to the staff by his supervisor, a non-native speaker of English. It's heading proclaimed in bold letters: “Conjugations on your achievement!” Such errors are interesting to linguists because they offer insights into language processing in the bilingual brain and, at the same time, throw light on communication in the multilingual workplace.

Some see workplace multilingualism as a threat: “Unrestricted multilingualism is inefficient and gets in the way of accomplishing business goals,” says Harvard business guru Tsedal Neeley, “sales get lost, merger integration drags, productivity slows.” All of this can presumably be avoided with one simple step – an English-only policy, already mandatory in many global corporations. “You don’t have to reach native fluency to be effective at work,” states Neeley with supreme confidence. “For most people, 3,000 to 5,000 words will do it.” But is it true that functioning with restricted vocabulary increases communication efficiency?

In two previous posts, we discussed misunderstanding in high stakes situations, from air traffic control (see here) to police interviews (see here). “Conjugations on your achievement” is an excellent example of a visible error where an incongruous word selection is immediately detected by readers and hearers and does not affect understanding. The jarring inappropriateness of the term may trigger a bout of hilarity but the context leaves no doubt that the writer meant “congratulations”.

We may even empathize because we have all been in situations where the word we are desperately looking for is dancing on the tip of our tongue but is crowded out by other similarly looking or sounding words. If anything, the similarities between "conjugations" and "congratulations" – the prefix, the suffix, the length, and the plural – tell us that our mental lexicon is not a random jumble of words but an organized structure where words are stored - and occasionally misplaced - according to specific principles.

In what follows, I want to focus on invisible errors which can also lead to misunderstandings. Invisible errors are faulty alternatives that are close enough to the target word in meaning to pass undetected – neither the speaker nor the hearer suspect that they are heading down the wrong path. An example comes from a listening comprehension study my colleagues and I are conducting with international students who have advanced levels of English proficiency but little knowledge of American culture. In one task the participants have to listen to recorded sentences and write down what they heard. As expected, sentences with legal terms and low frequency words caused more problems than sentences of equal length with familiar words. What we didn’t expect was the dexterity with which our participants filled in the blanks.

One such blank involved the word jurors in the sentence, “Jurors decide who is guilty”. Unfamiliar with the notion of jury trials, the participants were confident that they heard judge: “Judge decides who is guilty.” This substitution reveals the top-down nature of language processing – having grasped the idea (X decides on guilt), the mental processor uses existing background knowledge to pick the most reasonable choice, in the present case the judge.

An even more intriguing substitution appeared in the sentence, “The American legal system depends on the precedents set by previous cases” where "precedents" was replaced by "president"! For international students, bombarded with news about deportations and travel bans and concerned about their own status, the idea of the president as the ultimate law-maker made perfect sense.

These examples show that the English only policy is not a safeguard against miscommunication and misunderstanding, although it does make life more convenient for monolingual English speakers. Our first instinct is to fill in the blanks for things we miss or mishear – we only ask for clarification when we cannot make any sense whatsoever of what we heard. The potential for invisible errors and undetected misunderstandings is even greater when people are forced to operate exclusively in a foreign language in which they have limited vocabulary.

The employees of multilingual corporations are fully aware of being at a disadvantage when forced to work in a single language. Research conducted by the Swiss sociolinguist Georges Lüdi and his colleagues in multinational companies shows that in everyday communication mixed teams rely on the entirety of their plurilingual repertoires, with English as a lingua franca being only one strategy among many. The researchers argue that constraining communication to English only may lead to the loss of information and creativity as well as emotional distancing on the part of individuals unable to use their own language. While not a panacea, such multilingual communication does have one advantage – it makes misunderstandings more apparent and gives us more resources to resolve them.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of a computer lab meeting from Wikimedia (Narek75).


Ludi, G., Hochle Meier, K., & Yanaprasart, P. (eds.) (2016). Managing plurilingual and intercultural practices in the workplace: The case of multilingual Switzerland. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Neeley, T. (2012). Global business speaks English: Why you need a language strategy now. Harvard Business Review, 98(5), 116-124.

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