Managing when you Speak English as a Second Language

translation 1   translating

(Photo: tourist using Polish phrase book in Krakow’s market)

I recently came across a Lifeworks resource for managers titled “Managing Employees Who Speak English asa Second Language” (you can search for it if you have the Lifeworks account). I found this guide useful and quite naturally it made me reflect on my own experience as a non native speaker.

I still remember how 9 years ago it took me at least good 30 minutes before making my very first work phone call in English. It was a very simple conversation I was about to have, but it really stressed me. I now deliver training, always pick up the phone first rather than write an email. After all, I work in HR, and I talk to people on the regular basis. I may not be afraid of making phone calls anymore, but I am still very self- conscious when it comes to my accent and my use of English.

This is my subjective guide on managing ourselves whenwe speak English as a Second Language:

  1. Don’t assume native speakers would know how it is to speak English as a second language. As Wislawa Szymborska wrote: “we know about ourselves only what we’ve been tested”; Unless you were in a situation yourself, it is rather hard to expect that people would just know how it feels, which brings me to the next point:
  2. Help others help you. Raise awareness on how it is for you not to be fluent in English or to be coming from a different country. Don’t be afraid to share your challenges, insecurities that lack of fluency may bring, ask for patience and be patient yourself!
  3. Appreciate that it may be hard for others to understand you- don’t take it personally and do your bit! (see point 4)
  4. Immerse yourself in the language- read, listen to the radio, podcasts, audiobooks. Use dictionaries. Sign up for English lessons, ask your colleagues to correct you, ask for feedback, pay attention to how the words are pronounced. Slow down if need to (something I really need to work on!), talk to people and practice.
  5. Did I mention something about not taking it personally…? Well, as tempting as it may be, don’t just jump into conclusion that if things don’t go your way, it must be only because of your language skills. Be honest with yourself and evaluate the root causes. Ask for help, talk to your manager and HR (of course!).
  6. Expand on the ways you communicate with others and showcase your point of view: write a report, an essay, summarise your points in an email, prepare a presentation, engage with people who can represent you, build on your strengths.
  7. Come prepared to meetings- don’t know the exact agenda? Ask for one!
  8. Ever felt silly about not getting a joke, asking for a sentence to be repeated for you, not being understood? Well, it is good to remember that this does not reflect on your capabilities nor intelligence. Don’t be afraid to ask for the joke to be explained to you (often you will find that there is a cultural context you were missing on), ask your colleagues to speak slower, try different ways of putting your point across, don’t give up and don’t pretend you understood something if you didn’t- you may be agreeing to  or with something you would rather not to!
  9. I would like to believe that longer term, it is not what accent you speak with,  but what you do and how you approach the challenges that speaks who you are.
  10. Engage with people who show interest in your multilingualism, even if you find the question to be very obvious. If someone asks- share your experiences and offer insights. I’ve always had great conversations which started with questions like- do you take notes in English or in Polish? What language are you thinking in? What language do you speak at home? Are your children bilingual? How do you teach them Polish etc.. I actually only recently understood why people asked me if I took notes in English. It was so obvious to me that this was the only way of doing it that I could not see pass it! It was only after having a very interesting conversation with a colleague of mine when I realised people may imagine that when we speak another language, we “translate” it back and “overhear” it into our own language. As my colleague concluded- it isn’t as using google language tools- seeing a sentence in one language to the left and its translation to the right! We just “get it” the same way native speakers do. Unless we don’t, but then we would not be able to take note of it in our language either!:)
  11. Living in a foreign country may make impact your sense of belonging in both. Communicate, engage, immerse, reach out, stay in touch, be patient. Be proud of your own culture, appreciate and embrace the culture you are living in / working with.
  12. I found that being from a different country makes me see certain patterns, behaviours, culture traces as through a magnifying glass. It raises my self- awareness and awareness of others. Isn’t it great to embrace it?!
  13. Be aware of your own biases! And don’t stereotype others (yes, we -non native speakers- can do that too, -let’s not!).
  14. There may be colleagues who would love to take opportunity to exchange their langue skills for yours! In my first UK work, I’ve organised a “language for language” group among colleagues who were happy to teach each others language they spoke, native English speakers included.Get engage in work initiatives on diversity and inclusion. You don’t have one? Start one!
  15. Not to mention organising national cuisine days or treating your colleagues to your national sweets (I do it too- there is nothing like a good culture immersion excuse to eat chocolate!;)

I like to have my tea black (and green), I like fish and chips on a Friday. When speaking in English, I tend to overuse plural forms (apparently so), I speak fast thinking it masks my accent, but it really only magnifies it… I don’t always like to answer “fine” when asked how I am, but I like how useful it is to use “how are you” to start a conversation…I talk with my family and friends in Polish, I read and write mainly in English. I find it so hard to speak about work related aspects in Polish, as all sentences and words come to me in English first, even thought that with a Polish accent. As much as I sometimes feel trapped in my accent or the two realities, I could not be more grateful for the opportunities, perspectives and insights my multilingualism brings to me! And I could not be more grateful to all my British colleagues over the years for being patient, understanding, accepting and ever so helpful with me!


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