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3 Trust Barriers to Multilingual Community

Apr 24, 2019 | Blog

Multilingual communities are hard to create and sustain.

Modern examples tend to be driven by money and power: multinational corporations, international organizations (like the UN) and governments with multiple national languages (like India, Singapore or Canada). What’s at stake is important enough to warrant the expensive translation infrastructure it takes to sustain the multilingual organization.

But what about everywhere else?

Schools, courts, and hospitals may be legally required to provide translation, but going from transactional interactions to close relationships is as hard as ever. And what about voluntary associations like churches, clubs, neighborhood councils, and community groups? Is it possible to have multilingual communities united and sustained by neighborly love instead of by legal force?

We created to address the logistical challenges of translation at an affordable price, but there are still many barriers to fostering the kind of trust that can develop into a meaningful multilingual community.

Here are 3 trust barriers to overcome (check out the 3 trust builders too!).

Trust Barrier #1: Personal Discomfort

At the start, personal discomfort is the biggest trust barrier.

For some, the fear of the unknown and risk of embarrassment or misunderstanding are powerful disincentives to cross the language barrier.

For others, it’s just plain inconvenient and not worth the time.

If you’re reading this, we assume you want multilingual community.

In that case, your comfort is not the priority. Focusing on your comfort keeps the focus on you–what if you focused on making the other person comfortable instead?

Don’t pull back at the first sign of confusion, discomfort, or disagreement. Instead, press in to figure out what’s the issue. Make it clear you still want the relationship by continuing to engage. Over time, the discomfort gives way to rapport–an opportunity to be increasingly open, honest and learn from one another.

You can also turn the discomfort into internal curiosity–why do you feel discomfort? What is the trigger, and how would someone from another cultural background interpret the situation if they were in your shoes?

Trust Barrier #2: Social Discomfort

Once you’ve overcome the personal discomfort trust barrier, you face an even harder one–your community! You may readily welcome people in different languages, but the majority of people around you may not.

Communities have unique subcultures, values, habits, systems and processes. Existing members take all of this for granted.

But to outsiders who speak other languages, these implicit assumptions can be intimidating, confusing, and disenfranchising. They have to learn a new “way of doing things” without even knowing the language they can learn it in!

You see this often in formal decision-making situations. The business of a meeting is conducted in English, but the community desires input from constituents who speak other languages. So these people at best briefly speak and remain unengaged the rest of the time, or do not show up at all.

Changing entire systems to make them multilingual-friendly is beyond the scope of this article. But there’s one thing you can personally do to create social space for people who speak other languages.

Be their advocate. Be their friend.

Consistently, bring them into conversations and relationships with other people in your community. Ask for translation, ask for time, ask for what you need from your community to show hospitality to the people you are welcoming.

In so doing, you’re using your social capital to bridge the trust barrier between your community and others.

Trust Barrier #3: Tempting Tokenism

Once a community includes a little diversity, it faces a trust-busting temptation: tokenism.

Tokenism is defined as “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort [towards diversity]”. It happens when the organization–whether it’s a church, company, or parliament–is more concerned with appearing diverse, rather experiencing genuine transformation.

These short-term practices include inviting diverse people on stage to speak occasionally, throwing a culturally specific party on behalf of the ethnic group you’re serving, or serving ethnic food at events. In and of themselves, these are good ideas, but never as a substitute for the demanding work of developing trust with people from other languages to the point where they share in leadership and finances without segregation.

Reshaping majority cultures to make space and build genuine connections with minorities requires humility, patience and sacrifice. Tokenism can feel like a path of least resistance since you can proclaim how inclusive you are without paying your dues.

Unfortunately, tokenism backfires. People end up feeling used. They are just there to lend the appearance of diversity rather than because they are members of the community whose ideas and contributions are truly valued, considered and adopted. This creates a negative feedback loop of distrust and hypocrisy (acting).

Diversity fundamentally changes a communities’ identity and language diversity even more so.

Here are some links to further reading on the topic of tokenism to help you beware of this pitfall.


These three trust barriers we described are not the only ones, but being aware of these and thoughtful in your interactions help you better create healthy multilingual relationships and communities. Check out the next post on 3 trust builders.

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