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I have a team that without a single common language among all of the team members. The team is split across two locations (though the geography isn't the main issue). All team members in each location speak the same language and there are members in both locations that can speak both. I'd like to introduce scrum, but am struggling with the logistics of dealing with the language issue.

This isn't an offshore team. All team members are employees of the company, but located in two different offices in different countries. Fortunately, we don't have any issues with timezones; language is the primary barrier. While the team could be split into two teams, given the size and skillset of the people in each location as well as other external factors, it is more desirable to integrate as a single team.

I think it would be preferable to use video conferencing in order to have richer communication and help unite the team in being able to see each other and do the true stand-up approach. However, I am afraid this will be difficult to communicate between languages. Should bilingual members of the team translate verbally? Alternately, we could use instant message as recommended by the only reference I could find to language issues in distributed scrum. I'm concerned about the "poorer" communication and perhaps it is a poor introduction to the scrum concept.

From people that have experience in dealing with language differences in a team, how did you address the problem and how well did it work for you?

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teams practicing agile are supposed to be open to experimenting don't they? You know, "people over processes" and such. Try splitting to two teams per their languages and see how it works. If it turns out problematic, you can try one-team approach –  gnat Apr 20 '12 at 8:23
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@gnat - The two team approach isn't the right solution for our situation, but I think the answer lies in what you said about "be open to experimenting". I was very interested in hearing about other people's experiences with this issue to find the best solution, but ultimately we've been experimenting with a couple different approaches to find what works best. If you make this an answer, I'll mark it as accepted. –  g . May 12 '12 at 21:29
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4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Teams practicing agile are supposed to be open to experimenting don't they? You know, "people over processes" and such.

Try splitting to two teams per their languages and see how it works. If it turns out problematic, you can try one-team approach.


update, based on clarification provided in comments

I think the answer lies in what you said about "be open to experimenting"... ultimately we've been experimenting with a couple different approaches to find what works best

You got my idea 100% correctly, and I think you're approaching the issue the right way.

As they wrote in The Pragmatic Programmer more than ten years ago,

There are no easy answers. There is no such thing as a best solution...

This is where pragmatism comes in. You shouldn't be wedded to any particular technology, but have a broad enough background and experience base to allow you to choose good solutions in particular situations...

You adjust your approach to suit the current circumstances and environment. You judge the relative importance of all the factors affecting a project and use your experience to produce appropriate solutions. And you do this continuously as the work progresses...

One may say that Agile reinforces this olden-but-golden philosophy by making continuous adjustments an explicitly welcome part of development process.

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While I was looking to gain insight from others' experiences, ultimately, this is the right answer. –  g . May 13 '12 at 9:06
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Most effective way is to split into two different teams with logical isolated deliverable(s) for each team - they will have their own scrum masters.

Please read the link below, This has many good points that you can follow. ( though think does not address the concern of two different languages, this has many points related to two geographical locations). Martin Fowler has written this article after many years of working with offshore teams.

http://martinfowler.com/articles/agileOffshore.html

Some of the bullet excerpts from the article below.

1. Use Continuous Integration to Avoid Integration Headaches

2. Have Each Site Send Ambassadors to the Other Sites

3. Use Contact Visits to build trust

4. Don't Underestimate the Culture Change

5. Use wikis to contain common information

6. Use Test Scripts to Help Understand the Requirements

7. Use Regular Builds to Get Feedback on Functionality

8. *Use Regular Short Status Meetings*

etc

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I've clarified the question a bit. The central issue is language rather than geography. –  g . Apr 20 '12 at 7:48
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Our Dutch-Speaking team is closely working together with our French-Speaking branch. None of the French speaking team speak Dutch and our French is only OK-ish.

Everyone speaks at least some English however, certainly programmers, it's the Lingua Franca in Western Europe. So all the documentation is in English, all code comments, all mails and meetings.

From time to time we also visit each others branches. Often someone who often visits it brings along someone new to let everyone meet everyone.

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Ultimately we'll end up using English. Perhaps the answer is more around providing support for members of the team to improve their English? –  g . Apr 20 '12 at 11:10
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What is the official corporate language? I don't know the size of your company, but every single place I worked for had an official language.

My advice is to use the corporate language by default, unless the Scrum Team want something different and is supported by management.

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Forcing a language is a big thing and speaking a language is different from expressing yourself in a language. Discussions between native and learned language speakers often end up in the people that learned the language ending up frustrated because they can't get their point through and not getting valued enough just because they're not proficient at a language. –  Pieter B Apr 20 '12 at 10:36
    
The headquarters of the company moved from one country to another, so the dominant language of the company is shifting from one to another, but there is no 'official' language. My focus is on enabling communication rather than forcing a language. –  g . Apr 20 '12 at 11:09
    
Forcing a language is not what I suggested. I suggest to use the corporate language since every employee is supposed to use it. Unless they want to use another one, but this decision has to be supported by the management. –  user2567 Apr 20 '12 at 11:16
    
Dominant language <> corporate language. 80% of our employees speak Dutch as main language but English is the official language to use for documents. –  Carra Apr 20 '12 at 11:37
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