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Do you speak Globish?

In the construction industry, it matters if you speak the language of your workers, your clients, and your sub-contractors.

It rains steel pipes, we cannot work.

Help, it runs here in the soup.

No problem, sand over it.

These are just a few Dutch expressions that have been translated – quite literally – into English. No doubt you find them a little amusing. But unfortunately, they are part of a daily nightmare in many professional environments.

I was pondering over this very aspect when I heard about the new social agreement for construction workers earlier this week. One regulation in particular caught my attention: from now on, each site must have at least one person who is proficient in one of our national languages or in English. The intention is good, i.e. to improve communication and safety on worksites. However, I do not think that the elaboration is the best solution to a problem that the construction sector has been grappling with for some time.

The internationalisation of the sector and foreign postings over the past few decades have brought workers from various countries and continents to our regions: Poles, Bulgarians, Brazilians, Portuguese, Czechs, Romanians, etc. Initially, it was a win-win solution: on the one hand, the international construction worker, who knows his trade well, earns well here and, on the other hand, it was a good economic solution for the construction partner: a more economic solution to the labour shortage.


However, it’s is a well-known fact that communication is not always smooth. I have experienced this myself. Our company was engaged in large construction projects on two occasions. In each case, the construction contractors employed persons of many different nationalities. And several times, I had to help out as an interpreter when issuing instructions, including instructions on safety, which is a crucially important aspect on a construction site.

In a professional environment of this kind, you can’t simply get away by saying: ‘But everyone speaks English, surely?’ No, what they speak is not English, but Globish (Global English) as I prefer to call it: literal translations like the ones above that simply fail to communicate even basic site instructions, as in this case. The fear is that proficiency in a foreign language is so low that there is no real improvement in security.

Technology to the rescue

On the other hand, maybe the best solution is to just let people speak their own language – and use technology to make conversation possible. This way, no crucial information would be lost simply because the speaker could not find the right words or nuances in the ‘mandatory language’. In this context however, Google Translate is unfortunately of little use, since in spite of all the great leaps forward, the translations produced by this tool remain far short of the mark. Certainly so when it comes to specialised areas with professional jargon, such as in the construction sector. Or the chemical sector, where any incorrect translation could lead to catastrophic consequences. Quite clearly, machine translation technology is practically useless in such environments due to the wide margin of error.

Logically speaking, you should always engage interpreters for all professional external communication. Of course, I fully understand that you can’t have an interpreter with you on site all the time (and which language would you choose, with so many diverse nationalities present). But you can then use technology to bring a virtual linguist to the floor. A meeting or briefing is scheduled? Have a translator translate the safety instructions or assignments live – and accurately – and pass them on to the construction workers via the telephone (or the Internet). While the Polish plasterer is the most stereotypical example, this is just as easily possible between a Dutch railway worker and a French client. Such tools are highly cost-efficient (the alternative would be for you to hire and fly down an interpreter from their country of origin, pay for their hotel stay, assuming suitable hotel accommodation is available at short notice, etc.). And then of course there is the potential cost to the client in case incorrect instructions are communicated, which would also lead to delays in the delivery.

Alternative to language training

Learning a foreign language is not easy for site managers either. If you take into account that translators take several years to complete their training, you cannot expect to master a language within an intensive two-week course. This requires a long investment in time and money. And immersion in the language and culture abroad – still the best way – is somewhat easier for Erasmus students than it would be for a site manager.

Another problem is the high labour turnover in the construction sector. Even if you were to train your site manager to learn a particular language, he may well shift to a totally different employer in a few years, and it will be that the new employer who will then benefit from all your investment. Freelance project managers and many external partners are also hired for certain projects. If you work with Poles on one day, and with Bulgarians or Portuguese on the other… what language would you have to learn as a site manager?

So I’m convinced that, instead of mandating the presence of a linguistic site manager who speaks Globish or an intermediate language, it is technology that can contribute more to improving safety on the worksite.

BTW, just one last question: where exactly does your home – live? 😉