By its general nature, embedded systems development is already a global activity. Yet it would be clearly impractical to learn the native language for every country where you might do business. What can be done to make your communications (including documentation) as comprehensible as possible?
My day job takes me around the world to train, support, and consult with clients and distributors. Like many other native Anglophones, I used to take an understanding of the all-conquering English language as a given. After all, it's everyone's second language, isn't it? And if, at first, your audience doesn't understand, then surely speaking more slowly and loudly will do the job, won't it?
Actually, that stance holds true a surprising amount of the time, so it is far too easy for an Anglophone to be ill prepared when it doesn't. In much of Western Europe, English will be understood when delivered clearly and slowly. But once you travel farther afield, the premise is quickly undermined. For example, I have visited Russia several times lately. On each occasion, it has been necessary to call on the services of an interpreter. These interpreters have all been warm, welcoming, and helpful people, but most have had little or no technical knowledge.
Presenting technical arguments and explanations through such an intermediary is something of an art in itself, and I have found a number of points are key to making it a success.
- Investigate beforehand whether your audience speaks English (or your native language). On one occasion, I presented myself at a client where I was to give a standard three-day training course in software test techniques -- only to be greeted by an interpreter.
- Allow ample time if an interpreter is involved. Your message will take at least twice as long to deliver if it is passing through an interpreter.
- Keep sentences short, and speak slowly and clearly. Short sentences are easier to translate. If you are falling behind schedule, be wary of speeding up. It usually forces you to repeat things, slowing things down further.
- Think about each sentence before you say it. Correcting a mistake introduces a disproportionate amount of confusion. It requires the amendment to be translated, and it often takes a minute or two to get back on track. It is much better to take the time to get it right in the first place.
- Make use of a flipchart. This is an especially useful technique when describing technical issues not understood by the interpreter. A combination of laymen's analogies and sketched diagrams often finds a way through the language barrier.
- Explain by means of demonstration. No one likes endless slideshows. Of course, slides have their place, but the problem of endless slides of text is multiplied when they're in a foreign language. Try to use diagrams where possible to alleviate the problem -- or, better still, use demonstrations.
- Try to lighten things up. Cross-language sessions are hard work for everyone. The occasional quip and lighthearted comment can help lighten the load and the mood.
Many of these principles also apply to communicating via the written word. Again, simple language and short sentences help, as do automated translation facilities. It is also a fact that most people find the foreign written word easier to understand than the foreign spoken one.
Perhaps the most useful tool is graphical images. Microsoft PowerPoint is a virtually universal presentation tool, but when you are trying to communicate across the language barrier, handing out a PDF generated from PowerPoint can also be very beneficial. Of course, software is complex, and we will never be able to reduce its documentation to the level of Swedish flat-pack furniture with its illustrations of dowel pins and Allen keys. But such instructions do illustrate how powerful pictures can be -- either in isolation or, in our case, in support of more conventional text-based documentation.
If still pictures are helpful, videos can be doubly so. There are numerous packages available that let you make a professional presentation of them. I have used SoftwareCasa's Camtasia with considerable success, but I am sure other products can produce similar results.
Of course, there will be occasions where only detailed text will do, and it can still be used and translated if needed. But in general, considering the international angle will likely make presentations and documentation clearer for everyone -- native speakers included.