Walking through jelly

Just because a global company mandates one “global” language doesn’t mean that everything will run smoothly.

English is typically the global language selected, which is nice for those who were born into it. But for most everyone else, it can be a struggle if not a drag on one’s career prospects.

Which is why I was struck by this Harvard Business Review article on cross-cultural communication.

Here’s an overview of the study:

In an ethnographic study comprised of interviews and concurrent observations of 145 globally distributed members of nine project teams of an organization, we found that uneven proficiency in English, the lingua franca, disrupted collaboration for both native and non-native speakers. Although all team members spoke English, different levels of fluency contributed to tensions on these teams. As non-native English speakers attempted to counter the apprehension they felt when having to speak English and native English speakers fought against feeling excluded and devalued, a cycle of negative emotion ensued and disrupted interpersonal relationships on these teams.

In other words, varying degrees of English fluency disrupted the ability of teams to function well, not just across borders but within meetings.

I’ve witnessed this problem firsthand. In some cases I was the non-native speaker struggling to get a point across. In other cases I watched non-native speakers keep their mouths shut in meetings for fear of saying the wrong thing or because they couldn’t keep up with the conversation.

One non-native German speaker referred to the struggle keeping up in German-only meetings as “walking through jelly.”

Language fluency will probably always been unevenly distributed across global companies. But one thing I would love to see more companies do is incentivize employees to learn a second (or third or fourth) language. Many native-English speakers are simply oblivious to the challenges that non-native speakers face. By pushing everyone into that uncomfortable zone of learning a new language, we all gain a degree of empathy. It’s not about becoming fluent in another language; it’s about becoming a more empathetic person.

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Author: John Yunker

John co-founded Byte Level Research in 2000 and is author of The Web Globalization Report Card. He also co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

6 thoughts on “Walking through jelly”

  1. Thank you for that article! And to solve exactly that problem Esperanto was created: http://lernu.net. Becouse it’s *nearly* nobody’s native tongue, everyone has to learn it from the ground up, and becouse it has traits from several families of languages, seemed magically put together, everyone has already a basis to learn it quickier than any other foreign language.

  2. It’s nice to see that other people are coming to the same conclusions that the Esperanto supporters reached some time ago.

    Claude Piron wrote a lot of articles (and recorded a few Youtube videos too) about the language problem, and how people seem to purposedly ignore the best solution ever proposed: an international constructed language, such as Esperanto (Esperanto is not the only one, but it is the most promising)

    Constructed languages are specifically designed to avoid the traps that slow down the learning process of a second language (irregular verbs, irregular spellings, subtle vowel distinctions, counter-intuitive word derivation, etc.), while keeping all the expressive power of a national language. In fact, Esperanto speakers feel that it is sometimes more expressive than their own mother tongues, because of the regular and predictable word formation.

    People often feel uncomfortable with the fact that a language can be “constructed”. But Esperanto has proven that it is indeed possible, and after a few years of community growth, it is no longer any different from a national language. All languages must have been created at one point in time, right? So what’s wrong when a person carefully chooses the best features from several languages to construct a powerful communication tool?

  3. I’ve spent a big chunk of my career working for the localization branch of a major IT company. It always struck me a bit strange that the place gave no encouragement to its (mostly monolingual anglophone) workforce to learn other languages.

    For me, it’s a no-brainer that people working in language technology should learn languages. In fact, I’d ague that if you don’t have a passion for languages, then perhaps a career in the language industry isn’t for you.

    Unfortunately, convincing other people of this felt like “walking in jelly”. Needless to say, I don’t work there any more 🙂

  4. Perhaps we should have “Esperanto-only” meetings so that everyone is forced to speak in a non-native language. It would certainly be an interesting experiment, though would probably be little more than that.

  5. It’s just crazy that we have a well streamlined solution, the International Language Esperanto, working perfectly in any international context as I observed in a lot of meetings abroad, and most people don’t want to consider it because “it’s artificial” and “there is english”.
    Artificial only means that it carries on an amount of intelligent simplification, that no ethnic language can offer.
    And about “there is english” , well, I used it for more than 50 years, I often was in the position not to be able to enter a discussion because of my poor english; after many years of practice, I also was in the position to impose my views on others because of my better english. Well, this unsymmetrical international communication is a pain in the ass, it fosters up/down relationships, not intelligent friendly cooperation.
    There is a sickness, and there is a cure. Why to ignore it, instead of testing? Even english native speakers would have much to gain from neutral, fair language realtionships.

  6. Being a translation company owner, I cannot be a high Esperanto’s supporter. However, I would like to highlight that you can be a very good translator into your mother tongue, and not fluent at all in the source language you translate from. And, despite this, still have a passion for languages. Especially when you are hard of hearing (which is my situation) : even if you have all the needed hardware plugged into your hear, you can’t keep up with the conversation in a meeting counting more than one people talking in a foreign language. The reason is simple: you never learnt to hear in this foreign language, and this capability is very hard to acquire late in the life. Ah! If these damned English-people could only speak French, just like everyone does! -;)

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