Challenges and solutions when using a second language at work
I’ve already talked about what to do if you are the only non-native speaker in your team, but I have some more to say on the whole non-native speaker subject.
I can help people to improve their English because I’m an English teacher, but I can also relate to a lot of my customers who are using English at work, even though it’s not their native language, because I do the same thing at work every day. It’s just that I have a different language combination. I teach English, but I have many customers in German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland), so I often have meetings, write emails, or advertise my products and services in German.
I use a second language every day. This is actually what I’ve wanted for as long as I could remember. I was sometimes frustrated that I couldn’t use my language skills in previous jobs. However, it can be frustrating too. Sometimes I question myself more than I would if I were communicating in English. Sometimes I think more about how people will respond to me.
So, I decided to pull together some of the challenges that I’ve faced as someone who uses another language at work, and what I’ve done to overcome them. I also talked about this in episode 169 of my podcast.
At school I was always quite confident in German classes. I remembered new vocabulary. I passed exams. But as soon as I started using German in a business context, I realised that school German was not what I needed at work. There were gaping holes in my vocabulary, and I had no idea how people communicated in a business email. I had to learn because the tools I had weren’t the right ones for the job that I now needed to do.
Maybe it’s better now and people do focus more on functional skills that they could use if they had an employer in Germany, but it’s definitely not something that I covered. The grammar and conversation skills were a good foundation, but if you’re too informal, you run the risk of not being taken seriously when you’re trying to make a good impression on strangers.
So, I observed other people in online business forums. What kind of language did they use? Of course I couldn’t copy their style entirely, because everyone is different and if you want to be authentic, the only person you can be is yourself. But I took inspiration from all kinds of places – forums, articles, books, podcasts. I got into the habit of immersing myself in business-related German vocabulary that was relevant to the industries where my customers work, or to marketing products and services. I watched and learned!
This is an ongoing thing – I don’t think you ever stop learning, so it’s good to have a wide variety of sources that will help you to gain knowledge in your target language, or to see how other people talk about subjects that don’t come up in everyday general conversation.
2. Lack of confidence
This was a big one for me, especially when it came to speaking. I did not want to make mistakes, and this meant I sometimes didn’t say anything at all. People got completely the wrong impression of me because I was so quiet, and that made me even more miserable.
I’d be lying if I said I never feel nervous now, but it is so much better than it used to be, because I kept putting myself in positions where I needed to speak German. At first it was quick wins – a nice chat with a friend, where it really didn’t matter if I made mistakes. Then it was a meeting with a prospective client all in German. Then a networking event. I still haven’t got the courage to do public speaking in German yet, but I know if the opportunity came up, I could probably do it.
This confidence doesn’t come overnight, and it can also be affected by basic things such as the kind of day I’m having, but I know that doing the thing I was most scared of has helped me to become less scared of doing it.
Everyone has their own voice. Not just the voice that you speak with, but the things that make you “you”. The words you choose. The way you put your sentences together. Your sense of humour.
However good I got at German, it took time before I could really be myself in another language. I get some of my confidence in English by knowing that I’m pretty articulate, assertive, direct, and clear about what I want to say. It’s hard when all that is taken away from you as you start to build your skills in a new language. Sometimes people treated me worse, in ways I had never experienced in English, even when I was a child. It was partly because they weren’t very nice people, but partly because I wasn’t being myself – the Kirsty who wouldn’t stand for that nonsense.
It takes time to really develop your own style in another language, but it’s definitely worth it when you do.
4. Being taken seriously
Sometimes this is something that we tell ourselves – people won’t listen to me if I make some language mistakes. They won’t think I’m credible. They will notice that my adjective ending wasn’t right or that I used the wrong gender for a word.
Most of the time, people are more interested in your message, and they care less about these mistakes than we do.
We can always learn and improve. If I notice a mistake in something I said or wrote, it still annoys me, but I have a chance to fix it next time, and a chance to grow. Nobody is perfect, and native speakers certainly aren’t perfect. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break!
That doesn’t mean we lower our standards, but it does mean not getting in our own way and letting fear of failure prevent us from moving forward.
Occasionally the negative responses are real – I wrote a separate article about what to do if people are unkind about your English, or any other language that you are speaking.
Yes, it can be hard when you can’t be as eloquent as you are in your native language, but it does get easier the more you practice.
I touched on this earlier when I was talking about business vocabulary, but sometimes it pays to do a bit of deeper research if you know you’re going to be talking about a specific topic and you haven’t done it in your other language before.
This first hit home to me on the ski slopes in Austria – I was supposed to be translating for a friend in the hospital, and I realised how many medical terms I just didn’t know. I couldn’t have done much to prepare for that, but if you have more notice of something that’s coming up for you, some time spent preparing can save you a lot of stress later.
6. Sometimes translations don’t work out
I won’t name names here, and I don’t know if I’ve ever done this myself. I hope not. I’ve worked on translations of texts though where people have tried to translate a concept or image into the other language and it really didn’t work – either because it just didn’t make sense, or what comes across positively in one language causes quite a different reaction in another.
7. English isn’t used the same everywhere
Be mindful where you get information from and what kind of audience it was written for. I’ve noticed some slight changes in communication styles or habits between my German and Austrian customers, and the differences can be even bigger when you look at two distinct types of English such as British and American English. Not just the words that are used, but the way people like to communicate – what makes them like you, and what makes them feel uncomfortable. Of course these are generalisations and people are different, but there are differences in the marketing techniques used in different countries, so don’t think that the same message will have the same impact in any English-speaking country. It won’t!
8. Knowing what works
Sometimes the best way to find out if something sounds good is to ask. You often can’t ask your customers, but there’s nothing to stop you making friends who speak your target language. Business friends can help in all kinds of ways – from support to language help. The best type of friendships are reciprocal ones, so make sure you have something to bring to the table as well. I’ve learned a lot through my business buddies, and the fact that some of them speak my target language is an added bonus.
How about you – do you have any tips that you could add to this list? If you work in another language, what tips or resources have helped you to overcome challenges? Let me know in the comments!
More from English with Kirsty
If you would like more articles like this and other news from English with Kirsty to be delivered straight to your inbox, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter.