Managing a Multilingual Staff

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I recently ran across an article in the Irish Times about multilingual companies. (Do I look like a guy who reads the Irish Times? I am a guy who reads the Irish Times. . . every time that google tells me it has an article about translation). The article began by complaining that, while it was easy for speakers of any other language to decide which foreign language to study in order to work in international business, native English speakers had a more difficult choice. No language is as universal as English, so by learning a second language you risk pigeonholing yourself into regional affairs for a specific area. It’s an interesting argument, but that’s not what got my attention.

The article’s primary discussion was about the interaction between native speakers of English and non-native speakers of English at the executive level in a company. It cited several examples, one of which I’ll discuss below, and concluded that native speakers should restrict themselves to a dumbed down version of English in order to make their non-native colleagues feel more at ease. I could not disagree more!

Comfort and the Non-Native Speaker

As one example, the article cited Japan’s NTT Telecom company. Although NTT adopted English as the language of business for its international operations, according to the Irish Times article, it decided that “reports and company communications would be drafted by non-native speakers.” The reason was that native speakers used too many idiomatic expressions and difficult words which left non-native speakers feeling less confident. Or, to rephrase it in my words: Native speakers used the language correctly and the non-native speakers didn’t want to have to learn anything more than the bastardized version they got in their ESL classes. This mentality stifles individual improvement as well as the company’s progress..

I can make this statement without reservation, because I am a non-native speaker of the language of business where I work. I am the only native English speaker in my office and, aside from one Chinese speaker (whose command of idiomatic Japanese, I will admit is better than my own), everyone else is a native Japanese speaker. Nobody makes any effort to dumb down their Japanese for my sake, or to avoid uniquely Japanese expressions. If they did, I would be upset. If my Japanese colleagues were to speak at my level, how could I ever improve? As a student of a second language (and you’re always a student, never a master), I should be constantly trying to improve my ability and grasp of idioms and regional dialects. To do less would be to fail. Do I get lost from time to time during staff meeting? Sure, it happens, when the conversation is not relevant to my area of responsibility. But, it happens a whole lot less often than it did when I started there. If my colleagues conversed at the level of Japanese with which I was comfortable when I started, I never could have progressed.

As an aside, I have never been averse to asking for help when I do not understand a particular expression. So, for TranSenz translations, you may rest assured that Sawa and I work together on each project to be sure we have a complete understanding of the source material.

Language Learning: Immersion

Japan is, I think, widely regarded as being far behind most of the developed world (and indeed, a significant portion of the developing world) in the level of its English education. There are a lot of smarter people than me who have commented on this phenomenon and why it has come to be, so I won’t rehash old arguments here. I do want to comment briefly on how the examples in this article show that Japan will not be improving its position any time soon.

My Japanese colleagues are constantly surprised when I tell them I was never taught grammar in school, until college (and even then, it was in history class). I learned what “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs meant in a graduate Japanese course, never in English. I learned what I know of English language and grammar by reading, listening, writing, and speaking in real world situations. In my opinion, this is the best possible way to learn.

In language learning, the technique to which I referred above is “immersion learning.” In many cases, it’s simply not practical for ESL students, or for second-language students in any other language. But it is, without a doubt, the most effective way to acquire language if the opportunity is there. Companies like NTT have that rare opportunity to improve their executives’ English ability when they have native speakers on staff, but they deliberately choose to stifle it when they limit English to the ESL level. It’s lazy and self-defeating.

Why Bother?

I love language. I love English and all the diverse ways I can express myself and bring words to life. I love studying Japanese and learning new and interesting ways to express myself in that language, too. Learning a second language- one so fundamentally different from my native tongue- and way of thinking has, I think, opened my mind to see tricky problems from multiple perspectives and find new solutions. I believe the linguistic argument that our ability to reason and think is confined by our knowledge of language, because most of us think in words. If I limited my study of Japanese to only the areas that I could easily equate to simple phrases in English, it would be less exciting and less enlightening. I would have never opened up new ways of thinking. This same process of language learning would seem to offer measurable benefits to a multinational company as well, but only if they’re willing to step out of their linguistic comfort zone.

I’d love to hear your comments below, as long as you’re not a spambot!

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