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Learning A New Language

Learning A New Language

As my good friend, Lorenzo, from One Sun Knife Designs often points out, “…how can you expect to communicate, if you are not speaking the same language?”

How true.

It can take years for language experts to become proficient in true communication between different languages such as Russian and American English. There is more to real communication than just knowing the different words for “door”. Deep, meaningful communication is achieved when the cultural significance and the bias for using a certain word or phrase are expressed and received.

To a certain extent, the same holds true when you have a new team member join your organization. It may not seem like it but the process of adding a new team member is as much about teaching them the language of the team as it is helping them understand how to work the printer or coffee maker.

Lost In translation

I have worked in the transportation industry for a long time. I helped internal and external customers learn and use Transportation Management Systems (TMS). These programs help business transport goods for the lowest cost while still meeting their shipping and receiving requirements.

Every time that I would go on-site with a customer and start the project, we would have to review and explore their language and map it to my team’s language. An example is the word “shipment”. Depending on the program that I was using, a “shipment” would mean a combination of all orders going from one shipment point to one receiving point. However, in the customer’s world, that description of a shipment would be a “load” with each individual order being a “shipment”.

The early days of any project have an unofficial component of learning each other’s language. Even though a high percentage of the time, the project teams were made up of native American English-speaking participants. Until we started to speak and really understand each other, we could not move forward to build a meaningful solution.

Have you ever worked with an outside team where “X” was very clear to you only to have it mean “Y” to the outside team or individual? Was the frustration of not being understood felt on both sides?

The New Kid in Town

Acronyms and inside language. Every business and every group has them. You need to teach the acronyms and inside language to the new kid(s) in town and not assume that they will just “pick it up”.  To the new team member, it can be very frustrating trying to figure out the language and culture of the new organization.

I spent over 11 years with UPS. That organization has built-in over 100 years a set of acronyms that can be intimidating. UPS does do a good job of recognizing that they are an organization of acronyms and has produced some acronym cheat sheets to help the new people joining the organization.

Many times though, the new team members are left to their own devices to learn the organization’s language. This approach can lead to an extended period before the team member is fully functional and as previously mentioned lead to frustration between the new team member and their team. It is hard to have meaningful communication when the language being used is not consistent between both parties.

I suggest the following either when joining a new team or when leading someone through the process of joining a new team.

  • Create a list of the most common acronyms your team uses. Make sure you spell out what the acronym stands for and define it for the new team member.


  • Ask the new team member what they used to call “X”? Help Bridge the gap between a known reference and the new reference point. Building on similar concepts and vocabulary will help reduce the time a person moves from the “new kid” label to be a fully participating team member.


  • Reinforce the concept that on-boarding training is not only training for “how we do things” but also the language used to get things done.


Coach’s Wrap Up

Being the new kid is both exciting and at times overwhelming. Everyone is interested in speaking the same language as soon as possible. In my opinion, learning the team’s language is the most effective way of moving someone from a position of being a limited contributor to fully engaged team member. Once the language is locked down, then the ramp up on the tasks and duties becomes faster.

Do you remember when you struggled with a new group to understand their language? What do you wish they had done to help you learn their lingo?

If you could use help in developing a plan to teach your new team members your group’s language and shorten the time to have them contributing to the team, give me a call.


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