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May 2016

Advantages with working in a non-native language environment

How speaking a non-native language at work can help your career

We all know about the benefits of language mastery. Just think of the differences in your capabilities between your native language and the language you’re learning. When using our native language, we know the precise meaning and significance of each word, every nuance in phrases, such as the ability to detect sarcasm or a clever play on words. When using our target language, we tend to think slower, to require more time to speak, to have a relatively limited vocabulary, and a greater unfamiliarity with colloquialisms and slang.

However, a recent book review in The Economist suggests that those working in a non-native language environment might have greater strengths, that the perceived weaknesses of having limited language control might, in fact, be strengths.

What are the strengths of using a non-native language in the workplace?

Slow and deliberate thinking

The very hinderance of requiring time to process and deliver speech can be a big strength. Because speaking is harder, it becomes more deliberate. When speaking in our native language, we are often on autopilot, and sometimes the words come out before we’ve had time to think them through (surely, we all know someone like this). This is usually not the case for those speaking in their non-native languages; pauses are required to find exact words, allowing the brain to come up with a proper response. Asking for clarification can also be useful in crafting an effective response.

The appearance of humility

How cool it must be to be the witty conversationalist who uses so many big words at the water cooler. The opposite, however, may be true. Those working in a non-native language environment can appear more humble, and the article goes so far as to say that being thought of as “dimmer” may be beneficial as people underestimate the non-native speaker, allowing one to surprise with overdelivery. That said, brilliance often transcends languages, as does confidence and skill, so appearing more humble may be a good mechanism to make one seem more approachable and likable.

Culture variances add spice to the office

Hailing from another culture makes one undeniably more unique, adding variety and vibrancy to the workplace, and the diverse perspective may allow one to come up with solutions perhaps overlooked normally by the local office culture. In that same vein, diversity ought to be celebrated, especially in the workplace, if for this very reason alone.

“Hopping from language to language is a constant reminder of how others might see things differently”, notes a Dutch official at the European Commission. (One study found that bilingual children were better at guessing what was in other people’s heads, perhaps because they were constantly monitoring who in their world spoke what language.) “It was said that Ginger Rogers had to do every step Fred Astaire did, but “backwards, and in high heels”. This, unsurprisingly, made her an outstanding dancer.”

Have you ever had to work in an environment where the language was not your native one? How was your experience? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language learning articles!

Picture (c) Fotolia, Monkey Business