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Facilitating Multilingual Meetings

In global corporations, local neighborhoods, nonprofits, and public sector organizations, meetings that accommodate multiple languages are increasingly in demand. Immigration, ease of travel, and economic globalization call for skilled multilingual facilitators.  With the techniques outlined in this article, you can make your next meeting a mosaic of different languages and cultures.

Facilitating multilingual meetings is challenging and complicated, even difficult.  Some organizations have the resources to hire interpreters, translators and translating equipment. Other organizations with fewer resources can still hold meetings with up to three languages. This chapter addresses how to make bi-lingual and tri-lingual meetings inclusive and effective, no matter the size of your organization or group.

Bilingual and Trilingual Translators

When you are going to mix two or more languages in a small group, try to include some bi-lingual people. They are an important resource because they can translate for the group. If you have a tri-lingual group, people who speak all three languages are an amazing asset. Identify these people ahead of time and brief them on the topic and format for the meeting.

When planning and facilitating multilingual events, facilitators need to speak all the languages represented or invite someone who is multilingual to translate and co-facilitate.  Because plans made by one language tradition and imposed on others will not be received well, all language groups must be represented on the planning team.  Equitable meetings begin with equitable planning.

Begin with Shared Planning

Write invitations in all languages expected at the upcoming event.  One invitation might include all the languages, or each group can receive an invitation in its language.  Agendas, emails, flyers, hand-outs, and PowerPoint presentations must also be translated into multiple languages. Send these materials to interpreters and translators well in advance. Interpreters and translators should be alerted to difficult words or concepts. Brevity is essential when more than one language is involved because each statement needs repeating in every language.  Yes, these details are challenging.  But they are worth the effort.

At the event, the welcome should be spoken in all languages represented.  All handouts and presentations should be multilingual, although if the group is overwhelmingly of one language, not everything after the welcome needs to be spoken in all languages.  The smaller language groups will still need bi-lingual interpreters and translators.  Contemporaneous translating in which interpreters speak into a radio headset and participants listen on earpieces is an alternative under these circumstances.  This type of device can easily be rented.  Some municipalities, schools, and congregations own such systems and make them available to outside groups.

The Importance of Ground Rules

Ground rules are especially important when facilitating meetings in which multiple languages are present. The RESPECTFUL Communications Guidelines outlined on my website: in The Art of Ground Rules are specifically designed for multicultural and multilingual settings. They encourage empathy, recognize differences in communication styles across cultures, and prescribe steps to help make meetings welcoming and inclusive. Translate the RESPECT Guidelines into the languages likely to be spoken at your event.

Mutual Invitation or a talking stick can be helpful in multilingual groups numbering less than twelve. Talking sticks take too long if the group is larger than that.  If possible, break the group into smaller circles in which you can use talking sticks.  This helps you benefit from the rich diversity of attendees.

World Café and other whole group planning methods work well with multilingual groups. They include small groups of four or five and plenary sessions in which the insights and ideas of all are reported and recorded.  When using these methods, cluster people in language-specific groups. For example, in a tri-lingual gathering, have tables specifically for English speakers, Spanish speakers, and Mandarin speakers.

The Importance of Language-Specific Caucuses

Dividing participants into language-specific small groups accomplishes several goals. First, conversation flows more easily without having to wait for a translation. Second, it strengthens trust among participants.  People better understand each other’s nuances and inflections when they share a common language. Some cultures, particularly new immigrant communities, feel safer when conversing with people who speak their language.  They often feel intimidated in groups dominated by participants of the majority culture—even when the majority culture folks do not intend to be intimidating. Safety generates trust. Third, language-specific groups have greater confidence in speaking when it is time to report in the plenary sessions.

You might think of language-specific groups as caucuses. Caucuses are where people discuss needs, plan strategies, and gain confidence. When caucuses present their demands and ideas in or negotiate with, a larger group, the time spent in small groups pays off. People representing less-dominant cultures speak more forthrightly than they would have otherwise and linguistic groups with less power feel more confident.

A common mistake of well-meaning planners is to have all cultures and languages together in a Kumbaya moment.  I’ve been there, done that.  The reason this rarely works is that different cultures and language groups have different amounts of power. In the United States, for example, English speaking groups have more power than Spanish speakers, Korean speakers, or almost any other linguistic tradition. While there are times when it is important to mix people in a wonderful tapestry of colors and backgrounds, it needs to be done with care and intentionality.

Coping with Power Differentials

The problem is power.  Power differentials block full participation unless intentionally addressed in the group process and structure.  The well-meaning dominant group will wonder why the other cultures are quiet. They do not realize that some cultures will not address conflicts directly.  These cultures articulate disagreements in oblique ways, if at all. For them, preserving outward harmony is more important than speaking or reaching agreement.  Remember, silence can have many meanings, from total agreement to complete opposition.

Designing meetings with language caucuses helps break down these power differentials.  Later, when caucuses join the plenary session in which all languages are represented, speakers from less dominant groups are more assertive and less likely to suppress their ideas and thoughts. Also, because comments are made on behalf of the group, no one loses face.  Caucuses build confidence and make for more inclusive outcomes.

Multilingual meetings are challenging and exciting.  They are not easy to facilitate.  Skilled multilingual facilitators can seem as rare as a kimchi taco truck in Southern Italy.  There may not be much market for those tacos, but there is a growing market for skilled facilitators of multilingual meetings.

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