Language barriers to effective communication

Written by pamela ann ludwig
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Language barriers to effective communication
Knowing about some common language barriers can help you avoid misunderstandings. (Gary John Norman/Lifesize/Getty Images)

When working or interacting with those who speak other languages, it can help to be aware of some common barriers that make communication difficult. Even within the same language, regional differences and modern slang can lead to confusion between speakers. Knowing some of the common obstacles language learners face can help you to facilitate more effective communication and avoid misunderstandings.

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False Friends

"False friends" are words that look and/or sound similar or identical in two languages, yet have different or even opposite meanings. A significant amount of Spanish and English vocabulary shares the same Latin roots, and the same meaning as well. However, you may find some words whose meanings are so different as to seriously affect the meaning of a sentence. The meaning of "actual" in Spanish does not mean "in reality," but "currently; at the moment." The Spanish term "carrera" means "university major," unlike "career" in English. Therefore, a Spanish speaker talking about his "actual career" may be intending to tell you about what he is currently studying at his university.


English has several tenses to describe specific points in time. Tense construction can be confusing to language learners who may be familiar with the verb "to be," but not the sentence construction to describe actions in the past, present and future. For example, if a lower-intermediate level English speaker asks, "How long are you here?" he may mean either "How long will you be here?" or "How long have you been here?" The "going to" construction to indicate future plans may also cause confusion, as in the differences between "I'm going to the store" and "I'm going to start a new job soon."


Idioms are colloquial phrases or terms that express a sentiment by using vocabulary in a non-literal sense. A language learner who has studied standard English at a university or language school may be confused by idioms such as "you're pulling my leg," "she's the apple of my eye" or "there are plenty of fish in the sea." Even if she is familiar with idioms in one country or region, she may face confusion when travelling to a different region with the same language. Those familiar with American English idioms may have trouble understanding idiomatic expressions in Australian English. Even in formal situations such as office meetings and international seminars, the use of idioms may cause confusion to language learners and advanced non-native speakers.

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