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Experiencing Language Barriers with an Improvisational Theatre Workshop

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In the XP Days workshop agile cross borders, Hoang-Anh PHAN & Anais Victor explored how you can deal with language barriers in a multi cultural organization. They work for the Vietnamese company Officience who provides outsourcing services to French customer, using the English language to communicate and work together.

Their workshop consisted of a game with three iterations of improvisational theatre with multiple teams in one room. In the first iteration the teams were asked to design a scene for expressing a situation, for example `two people at a railway station who got there luggage mixed up`. The team members discussed the roles that they would play, repeated the scene and the text lines that they would use, and did a retrospective to see how they could further improve it.

In the second iteration a constraint was added: each team member got a note with one or more words and was told that they are not allowed to use any other words. The teams discussed how they could still play the scene with this limitation, and practiced it.

In the third iteration the team got a new situation that they needed to play, still using only the words that they got in the second iteration. They received only 15 seconds to think about how they would improvise to do the scene. The other teams acted as audience, they were asked to recognize the situation that the team played.

After doing the improvisation workshop, Hoang-Anh and Anais asked the teams how they felt in the three iterations, and how they adapted to the constraints. Feedback from the teams was that not being able to use your own words in the second iteration was a real barrier. They looked for other ways to express themselves and structure the communication, e.g. using body language, signs, etc. In the third iteration the teams focused on playing the key roles in the story in a simple way, since the time to prepare was very limited. Playing this third scene made the team members aware that being under stress and limited in language is a real barrier to express a situation to an audience.

It can be difficult for people to communicate with each other in English when that is not their first language. They may not feel comfortable talking with clients, or find it difficult to find the right words and express themselves. It can help to provide structure to the teams said Hoang-Anh and Anais. For instance, a stand-up has a structure since you typically talk about what you did yesterday, what you will you do today, and issues that you have. Other forms of structure that they used were email templates for reporting problems or describing releases, using simple words which made it easier for people to use them.

When people needed to call with customers, they used scripts to help them write down what they wanted to talk about. Initially they would just read out these scripts to make sure that their message got across. Hoang-Anh and Anais also made teams aware that there are multiple ways to communicate with each other and with customers, and supported team members in discovering ways of communicating they feel more comfortable with in a given situation.

If people feel uncomfortable they won't talk much. When they become more comfortable they may talk too much. You have to help them to find a balance between talking, and being silent to observe and listen, said Hoang-Anh and Anais .

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