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    March 01, 2018

    How to Overcome Language Barriers When Manufacturing Overseas

    Have you ever traveled to a country where the residents don't speak your language? Trying to make yourself understood and trying to understand someone else when neither of you is speaking your native language is hard enough when you're a tourist trying to find a museum, a good restaurant or the bathroom. Imagine trying to develop a product with those limitations!


    While many overseas manufacturers do speak English, and in many cases quite well, it's not their native language. Accents or differences in pronunciation can make comprehension difficult. We have a some ideas to help you overcome language barriers when manufacturing overseas. First, watch this quick video about one of our readers and how he tackled this challenge: 

    So much of communication is nuance. Communication is made up of not just the words we speak but our tone, our expressions and our gestures. A lot of what is communicated is “between the lines” and relationships definitely take more than one conversation.

    Of course one way to sidestep many of the language issues is to partner with a U.S.-based contract manufacturer with solid, dependable contacts in the right overseas markets for your product or commodity. An experienced contract manufacturer has done all the work for you and will handle the sometimes tricky communications because they've been there, with boots on the ground. Your contract manufacturer can guide you through the early negotiations, the sampling and production phases, and handle questions and concerns about everything from quality to shipping.

    However, if you're choosing to go it alone, here are a few tips that will help you build a successful working relationship with an overseas manufacturer:

    • In China, for example, directness can be perceived as rude. Take time to build the relationship and don’t be deterred by the lack of immediate understanding. If necessary, politely ask for clarification
    • As Ryan found out, video conference calls can be a god-send. Hire an experienced translator to assist you early in the process if you don't have a native-language speaker on your staff. If necessary, use photos or diagrams to illustrate your ideas.
    • If you don’t understand something that was said, politely ask the other person to repeat.
    • At the end of every communication/conference call, let your counterpart know you will send a detailed email of action items discussed and ask them to do the same. Use this email as the document verifying that all parties are on the same page.
    • If there is a disparity in your understanding of any point of discussion, ask for clarification before moving on.

    Remember it might be as difficult for those overseas to understand you. Here are a few tips for English-speakers working with foreign suppliers:

    • Americans tend to be much more informal in business and may not realize how surprising that is to non-Americans. In general, it’s better to address the person you’re dealing with by calling them Mr. or Ms. Surname, until you’re prompted to do otherwise.
    • Try not to use American idioms or jargon. It’s very confusing to non-English speakers.
    • Slow down! Many English-speakers tend to rush through their words. If you’ve ever traveled to a country where your native language isn’t being spoken, you know how difficult it can be to follow the conversation. Slowing down the pace of the conversation can help you do a better job of conveying your point, and the hearer has a better chance of understanding.
    • Speak clearly! Mumbling or allowing your words to trail off at the end of a sentence can be…(murmur, murmur...)
    • Do some studying on your own. You don't have to learn to speak Chinese, Vietnamese or whatever like a native, but learning key words or phrases having to do with the work you do demonstrates that you're not the sterepotypical "ugly American," expecting others to know your native language while making no effort to learn another language yourself. 

    The process of developing your product is challenging enough without problems caused by language misunderstandings. We'd love to hear more about how you handled any issues that arose out of the language barrier. Let us hear from you in the comment section below!

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    Filed Under: China, Vietnam, Contract Manufacturing, Overseas Manufacturing