The Uncomfortable Truth about Bilingual Employee Communications


If your organization has bilingual employees, chances are there’s a lot that is actually left unsaid.

Generally, bilingual employees are sought after for their ability to communicate with two distinct markets--the English-speaking and the Spanish-speaking ones.
However, people don’t normally stop and think about what is actually being COMMUNICATED during impromptu bilingual encounters and about the lose-lose situation everyone involved is put in.
Sure, heritage speakers of Spanish typically learn the culture and language at home, and thus are able to facilitate fairly easy bilingual encounters involving basic conversations such as responding to directions, appointment-setting, and other trivial exchanges.

But what happens when that same bilingual employee is tasked with, or rather volunteered into, communicating slightly more complex information in a professional setting?

I recently was doing a local business presentation and a former bank teller shared her learning experience with the group. She explained how she inadvertently called a customer a criminal by using what she thought was the Spanish “equivalent” of the word “delincuente.” The message she was trying to convey was that the customer was delinquent on his account.
Needless to say, the bank customer was upset, the bank teller was mortified, and the bank’s professional image was tarnished.


THE REQUEST Customer: “Buenos días, ¿habla español?” Customer: I wonder whether I will be able to communicate in my language. FEELS: Anxious
Boss: “Hey Christina, you speak Spanish, right? Can you please help me with this client?” Boss: The fact that I can’t communicate with this customer is an afterthought. --Gets in quick-fix mode. FEELS: Ill-prepared
Christina: “Uhm… sure, boss.” Christina: I may not have the necessary vocabulary to professionally represent the bank in Spanish, but I can’t say “no” to my boss. FEELS: Apprehensive, forced into the situation, possibly stressed that she has to neglect her formally assigned duties on a consistent basis.
THE RENDITION Boss: “Our records show you are delinquent…” Boss: Rapport with customer is non-existent. FEELS: Casually confident
Christina: “Este, dice que usted es delincuente…” Christina: Struggles to find the right words and hopes for the best. FEELS: Uneasy
Customer: “¿Qué? ¡Yo no soy ningún delincuente! [Translation: What? I’m no criminal!] Customer: You’re insulting me?!--Struggles to understand. FEELS: Rightfully upset
THE AFTERMATH Boss: 😕Confused and unaware of lost opportunities and potential liability.
Christina: 😓Glad it’s over, embarrassed, hopes she doesn’t have to repeat the situation anytime soon, though she knows it’s inevitable.
Customer: 😠Will try a competitor who speaks their language next time.

In my experience, no industry is immune from this phenomenon and this exchange happens in a variety of forms and when bilingual people are unwittingly overly confident in their abilities to translate.

French President Macron fell into this linguistic trap recently. He inadvertently called the Australian Prime Minister’s wife delicious, when what he meant to say was delightful, which stems from the French word délicieux. Even in healthcare settings where certified medical interpreters are regularly used for doctor-patient consultations, the doctors often insist on “practicing” their Spanish with the patient, inadvertently inviting the opportunity for miscommunication and uneasy feelings for all parties involved.

So, what can you do?

If you identify as that apprehensive bilingual employee, speak up about your limited expertise and about how by putting on the hat of the ad-hoc interpreter, you are neglecting the specific role for which you were hired--this translates into real dollars being wasted by your employer.
If you identify as the hopeful, yet ultimately uninformed boss and are interested in seriously bilinguifying your operations, see how your gaps can immediately be covered here.