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Breaking the Language Barrier: Training and Managing a Multilingual Restaurant Staff

Breaking the Language Barrier: Training and Managing a Multilingual Restaurant Staff

Approximately one third of workers in the quick service restaurant industry are non-native English speakers.1 With an increasing population of multilingual food service workers, the importance of communication and management styles geared toward non-native speakers is paramount to a smooth operation. Consider these guidelines to create a culture of acceptance and make the most of your non-native speakers’ skills and talents.

Tools for Employees

When working with non-native English speakers, or even those who barely speak English at all, it helps to have materials translated into the appropriate languages so these employees can learn the job as well as a native English speaker.

Multilingual training materials.
Bilingual or multilingual tools like booklets, quick-reference cards, employee manuals and menus are helpful when training someone new.

Multilingual POS system. Many operators overlook simple business components like the Point of Sale (POS) system. Instructions for clocking in and clocking out should be in English, Spanish and any other language frequently spoken in the restaurant.

Audio or video tapes for employees.
Some restaurant chains will provide audio or video tapes to employees to help bridge the language gap.2 The tapes include important words and phrases to help non-native speakers with typical English restaurant terminology.

ESL classes.
On occasion, a restaurant or company will offer education as part of the benefit package. This allows employees the means to study English as a second language on a deeper level, improving confidence and skills in the restaurant or any other workplace.

Visual tools.
These can include posters that outline the proper step-by-step procedures for cleaning an area or color-coded bilingual labels to identify chemicals.

restaurant manager Tips for Management

Although non-native English speakers and other bilingual employees often need extra training, some real benefit comes from managers who take the time and make the effort to incorporate an understanding of other languages and cultures into the workplace.

Training materials.
Many chain restaurants or large companies offer training classes for managers to learn enough of a language to communicate with their non-English speaking employees. Even a few functional words help communication as a whole, especially between kitchen managers and kitchen workers in a busy restaurant.

Learning the culture. Managers who learn about their employees’ cultures as well as their languages will often be better able to accommodate any differences in communication styles. For example, some communication difference that vary by culture may include:

  • Volume of speaking voice
  • How close one stands to another while holding a conversation
  • If people look directly at one another while speaking3

Opportunities for advancement.
Improvement in English can be perceived as excelling in the job itself, and any significant improvement in the workplace should be rewarded with a promotion both in job responsibility and pay rate.

Appreciate diversity in the workplace.
Bilingual and multilingual skills are often an important addition to the workplace. Many people go out to eat, and it helps when you can provide exceptional service to all of your guests, especially non-native English speakers in the area. Some restaurants look specifically for qualified job candidates who are able to speak a language other than English to help drive business in a multi-cultural area.

Diversity Efforts

Alhough linguistic and cultural differences can form a barrier, diversity can enhance the workplace environment in many ways. In 2002, Nation's Restaurant News and the MultiCultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance jointly delivered a Diversity Study. Of about 150 responses from companies within the food service industry, almost 40 percent responded that they have programs in place to hire and retain qualified non-native English speaking workers.4 These programs include the following:

  • Management succession plans
  • English language classes
  • Support networks

Initiatives like these help promote diversity. They capitalize on the skills and talents of people who often fall under the radar because of a language barrier. On the whole, diversity can be a positive concept for a restaurant. Diversity in the workplace shows and encourages cultural acceptance both for employees and guests.


1 Lynne Weisenfels, Director of Training and Development for Arby’s, as quoted in “Arby’s deploys five multilingual training tapes to build loyalty,” Nation’s Restaurant News, Bnet Business Network, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3190/is_21_34/ai_64574189 (accessed Oct 16, 2008)
2 “Arby’s deploys five multilingual training tapes to build loyalty,” Nation’s Restaurant News, Bnet Business Network, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3190/is_21_34/ai_64574189 (accessed Oct 16, 2008)
3 “Cultural Differences in America,” Senior Service America, Center for Applied Linguistics http://www.seniorserviceamerica.org/pdf/CALGuide-CulturalDifferencesinAmerica.pdf (accessed October 23, 2008).
4 “Multiculturalism in foodservice: how diversity impacts your business,” Nation’s Restaurant News, Bnet Business Network, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3190/is_32_36/ai_90570849?tag=rel.res2 (accessed Oct 16, 2008)