Communicating Across Cultures: Lingua Franca
By Dawn Chiang
Lingua Franca — “A language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different”
While working as senior technical supervisor on the construction of The House of Dancing Water in Macau, China, just 40 miles west of Hong Kong, whenever I attended a meeting where my counterparts would be speaking mostly in Cantonese, or a few in Mandarin, I would bring a stack of scrap paper and a handful of colored pens. Although the engineers, construction managers and creative team all spoke different native languages, the common ground were drawings — everyone could read blueprints and sketches.
The technical challenges of this sophisticated theatre facility were enormous and the technical details nuanced.
Putting 11 hydraulic lifts in a 3.6 million gallon swimming pool is still a new technology, even though it had been done a couple of times before, in increasingly complex versions, by the same creative producer. As an English speaker only, the question was how to problem solve and communicate across two languages about so demanding a topic?
In a meeting of 12 engineers, architects and project managers, the conversation would often devolve into multiple, separate conversations proceeding animatedly in Cantonese, as people would grapple with the topics at hand.
This could go on for 15 to 20 minutes. Occasionally, one of the bilingual engineers would switch back to English to catch me up on what was going on.
I would draw a sketch of the question that we were attempting to solve — how can Eyebolt A attached to donut shaped floor B without obstructing supporting Bracket C?
In another color, I would sketch one possible solution.
That would often spark a grab for more colored pens as the problem solving focused on the piece of paper, and transformed into different colored sketches to suggest different solutions. This visual/graphic “conversation” unfolded over just a few minutes, longer if there were more iterations needed. We bypassed long, multiple, overlapping verbal conversations requiring extended verbal translation and got to the heart of the matter. There was a good sense of moving forward and getting the work done.
We discovered that equipment models, times of day and units of measure were universally recognizable using English letters and Arabic numbers (i.e., 1, 2, 3, etc.), so a fair amount of detail could be readily shared back and forth.
On another similar, complex swimming pool theatre project in China, a larger application of this visual and graphic approach evolved in order to tackle complex scheduling meetings.
Working on the Han Theatre in Wuhan, Hubei, China required detailed scheduling and logistics on a daily basis.
There were six major zones in the cavernous auditorium and performance area that required work in these multiple areas to proceed simultaneously, without conflict. Work often continued on a 24-hour cycle, as the project approached final deadline.
Many tasks required specific working conditions (Wet Lifts at -1 meters, and Swing Seats in the Open position). The scheduling group had to sort out which teams could work without conflict at the same time in the auditorium and performance area.
Our initial attempt to coordinate scheduling tasks verbally around the conference table, with interpretation back and forth between English and Mandarin, was excruciatingly slow and difficult to follow.
Because of the verbal one-person/one-idea-at-a-time format, there was no easy way to connect the multiple pieces of this complex puzzle together as a whole.
We tried a more graphically based approach by capturing the information visually and sharing it in real time, with minimal verbal interpreting required. We set up three wall-sized white boards in the conference room, gridded out to show the six work zones across the top plus a column for Notes and another for Stakeholder (i.e., which team needed to do the work), in both English and Chinese. Time slots were written running down the left hand side of the grid.
- A task would be written on the white board: “Load testing on wet stage” — a task for the rigging team. A staff interpreter translated the note into Chinese under the English description.
- Time slot was set as 0800 to 2000. 24-hour time notation was familiar to all.
- In the columns for “Seats – Wet and Dry”, and “Stage – Wet” (opposite the time slot of 0800 to 2000), the comment “Varies” announced that those items would be moved to different elevations up or down as part of the load testing process.
The grid immediately showed obvious conflicts where Tasks 1 and 2 could not occupy the same place at the same time — but could work if we delayed Task 2 by four hours once Task 1 was complete. It also showed us that Task 5 could be moved up to the morning since, there were no projects competing for the specified space, and its physical pre-requisites did not conflict with anyone else’s work at that time.
As the information appeared in real time on the board, spirited negotiations between vendors and coordinators would sometimes break out about how best to meet everyone’s specific needs. There was a clearer understanding by all parties on how their task fit into the larger picture. Absolute deadlines about when specific tasks needed to be complete were included in the whiteboard schedule.
Once the scheduling grid was complete, everyone took a snapshot of the two white board grids on their way out the door. Everyone now had an understanding of the next day’s schedule and were ready to go.
Scheduling efficiency dramatically increased. Total time condensed from two hours in the old verbal translation style to about 20 – 30 minutes using the white board grid. As upcoming tasks became more elaborate, we were able to schedule up to three days in advance, in about an hour’s time.
It was endlessly fascinating to see how the energy flow immediately opened up by shifting to a visual/graphic format.
Communication became more fluid and responsive. Tackling the big challenges ahead of us became more manageable.
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