(Foreign) Language fluency at work

By | September 30, 2015

Although I’m gradually getting the hang of day-to-day Japanese conversation, I don’t any experience using that language in a work environment. My current workplace doesn’t have many Japanese people, so there isn’t much opportunity to attempt it, either.

However, that doesn’t stop me from thinking about what it would be like to attempt using Japanese while working with a team of people at a job. I happen to work with people from many different cultures and sometimes I try to imagine what if I was them, using a foreign language at the workplace.

One major difference of using a foreign language at work compared to among friends is that you have much more pressure to communicate effectively, with your boss being less forgiving of mistakes and risks associated with not meeting expectations.

But more than that, this got me thinking to what it really means to be fluent in a language while at work. In addition to basic conversation skills, you may have to learn a bunch of technical or domain terms. There’s also a good chance you’ll have to give presentations as well as read and write many emails. In Japanese, you also have to have to worry about the various politeness levels, adjusting your speech and writing depending on the audience.

There is a big difference between being able to do everyday work things, and being able to do them close to native-level. For example, your reading speed may severely limit how fast you get work done, and time looking up words will delay things even further. In conversations, having to explain things a roundabout way due to insufficient ability to express yourself efficiently will also take more time, and potentially frustrate the listener who is looking to get back to work.

There is also the social angle. When I work with someone, the more fluent they are in English generally the easier it is to get along with them. For the cases where a coworker has a strong accent or makes common grammar mistakes, it will take a little more effort for me to follow their conversation, and there will be a higher chance of miscommunication. The more fluent someone is, the more opportunities they will have to make a joke or interject a friendly “unnecessary” comment which helps people to work together easier. At my current level of Japanese, I could probably communicate much of what I wanted to say, but only with great concentration and effort. I wouldn’t have the time (or as they say in Japanese, yoyuu) to even think about making jokes. Of course, there are some people who are fluent (either natives or non-natives) and just don’t make jokes because it isn’t their personality.

Fluency at work, besides having an impact on your efficiency accomplishing assigned tasks, also influences what jobs are open to you, or which you would be good at. In companies I’ve worked in, almost everyone at the management level had pretty good communication skills in English. And the higher you get, the more necessity there is for fluency. Even for jobs like software design architect which are very technical, you are required to efficiently listen to people’s opinions, device an appropriate architecture, and then communicate that verbally and via written documentation. Without the ability to quickly comprehend and respond in an intelligent fashion, you can’t get your job done. Even in one’s native language effective communication can be a challenge, and for a foreign language it’s that much harder.

Working with people also trains your people skills, like is learning what drives each individual and how to most effectively communicate with them. There is some of this in personal relationships, but the difference here is you generally cannot choose who you work with, so there is a bigger chance of having to deal with personality conflicts.

This highlights one of the great things about learning a foreign language – the opportunity to put a microscope on all those things you were taking advantage of in your native language. The more you uncover about what you were unconsciously doing all along, the more this thing called language amazes you.


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