My Journey as a Non-native English Speaker Working for an American Company
Reflecting on the challenges and learnings working for an American company as a non-native English speaker.
After working for and American company for three and a half years, I’ve been reflecting on what have been the challenges and learnings of being a non-native English speaker working for an American company.
I’m originally from México, and went to a bi-lingual school from kindergarden to secondary school. I then joined English conversation classes, and later on enrolled in a graduate program in Boston. After all those years of studying and speaking English you might want to call yourself a “fluent speaker”.
I have come to realize that you cannot only learn a language, you have to live and experience the language.
I’m going to divide my journey into three phases.
Phase 1. “The base of the cake”
It’s my first day at work, and while in my CV I’ve listed “English: Fluent” I find myself struggling to catch up with everything that’s going on at once in my surroundings. The truth is that while I was a fluent English speaker there are many things that comprise a language.
Let’s think about language as a cake (we all like cake 🍰). As we grow up we not only learn vocabulary and grammar (a.k.a as the base of the cake in this analogy), but we also learn non-verbal language, and a whole other set of colloquialisms, slang, dialect, etc. (the filling of the cake) which are all influenced by our culture (the frosting).
You can now imagine how when you move to another country you lose most of the cultural context. That’s when you realize that you came to the party with only the base of the cake, and you’re missing the filling and the frosting.
The challenge at this point for me was not to loose confidence and make it my mission to get the missing ingredients that will go into the cake with the help of others (friends, co-workers, everyone).
Phase 2. “Focusing on the filling”
During this phase I was able to identify the core challenges that I was facing:
- Translate/understand verbal communication and non-verbal communication. These two can be communicating different things at once.
- I struggled to leave out any cultural influence that may be “twisting” the message. For instance, in México we are very expressive and emotional, so you can imagine how any verbal/written message that was too straightforward could be perceived as “there’s something wrong”.
- Effectively communicate ideas or problems. We think faster than we speak, and if we struggle to organize our ideas in our head so that we can vocalize them in our native language, you can now imagine trying to organize them while translating them on the go. Many times I found myself losing my train of thought. More often when in interviews or big meetings where I also experienced some level of anxiety or stress. This specific challenge can easily decrease self-confidence.
- Remove the non-native label from myself. I was constantly seeing myself as being in disadvantage for being a non-native speaker trying to communicate, however I needed to start seeing myself as a “human” trying to communicate — and let’s face it communication is hard.
After getting familiar with the challenges I started to ask myself: “Why do I think this is happening?”. I came to the conclusion that the answer to that is a combination of two elements: assumption and constraint. Let’s think about a scenario where we are having a group discussion.
Assumptions. Humans tend to assume a lot of things. In this case I discovered that there were two different assumptions often made by both parties (myself and others).
- “Everyone else understands but me”. Whenever I heard an acronym, word, or phrase that I was not familiar with I found myself assuming that I should know the meaning or everyone knows the meaning but me.
- “This is common knowledge”. This will happen more often in situations where the majority of the group were native English speakers and thus familiar with a concept. It could be an ice breaker activity, acronyms, phrases, or jokes. This can easily be an oversight since certain concepts may be perceived as common knowledge. However, it may be a concept acquired from cultural influence that not everyone is familiar with.
Constraint. Constraint refers to inhibition, embarrassment, and/or self-consciousness. In group discussions I saw constraint in myself and/or others when we:
- Limited ourselves from asking. The problem with not asking questions in the moment is that we miss the opportunity to fully understand a discussion so that we can share our ideas or point of views. If we do not have all the information we cannot become an active participant.
- Avoiding pointing out non-common knowledge concepts. In this case we miss the chance to create awareness that a concept may not be known by everyone. By pointing that out we help exercise the diversity muscle in a group and everyone is reminded that not everything we consider common knowledge is common knowledge for everyone.
Based on these challenges I then defined action items to “prepare the filling of the cake”:
- Repeat the message to myself out loud. When receiving a message I repeated what I understood out-loud. When delivering a message I also rephrased at the end what I just said.
- Ask questions. When I heard an unfamiliar concept I asked for both the meaning and examples. Context helps for a new concept to stick. Also, when I was unsure about non-verbal communication (written or in a physical meeting) I’d ask others what was their perception. This helped me to learn more about non-verbal communication. It also helped to prevent cultural influence from “twisting” the message.
- Use the diversity lens myself. Leaving out labels (non-native vs. native) that contribute to assumption and constraint helps to build equal individuals. I’m different and grew up different, but so is the people in the room so I was never in disadvantage.
Phase 3. “Let’s decorate!”
This phase is the fun one, but can certainly be hard for some people. As I mentioned before you cannot only learn a language, you have got to live and experience the language. Decorating the cake will require for you to immerse in a different culture and embrace it.
You need to be comfortable with the feeling of not “belonging” so that you can work towards feeling like you belong.
Informal conversations, having lunch with your co-workers, and staying out for a drink are some of the activities where I was able to practice belonging. I’d admit that in some instances socializing and casual conversations can easily became “work” for me since I’d find myself not knowing about a music festival, struggling to understand certain words, and loosing track of the conversation (a.k.a lost). I had to be focused, and in translation mode. However, this is how I’ve learned the most about the new culture I’m a part of, gotten to share more about my culture and start feeling like I belong. I’ve started to decorate the cake.
To date I still find myself challenged everyday, but now I know that having grown in a different place, speaking a different language, and surrounded by a different culture is nothing but a strength.
I’ve learned to speak out more and share my ideas since this is ultimately a way of promoting diversity.
Putting up barriers or labels to ourselves results in missed opportunities. A missed opportunity for us to learn, for us to share and enrich other culture, and for us to start building diverse ideas that solve for a diverse world.