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Say What? Foreign Language Anxiety in the Global Workplace

Say What? Foreign Language Anxiety in the Global Workplace

The only thing worse than not understanding someone else when they’re speaking is having the feeling that you’re not making yourself understood when doing the same.
Recently, during the break in one of my evening business communication courses, a student approached me because he wanted to talk about the negative vibes he was getting from his new boss whenever they spoke together one-on-one in informal settings. This employee had been living and working in southern Norway for several years as an engineer in one of the region’s large global offshore industry, many of whose official ‘working language’ is English. This was not a problem, as English was his second language and he had no problem using it on the job. But he had also picked up quite a bit of Norwegian during his time in the country and felt that he spoke it passably well. The problem arose after he had switched jobs and began trying to speak with his new manager if they, for example, found themselves facing one another across the lunch table. He explained that while it wasn’t a huge problem as such, it gave him a feeling of not connecting with his boss due to the latter’s somewhat frowning, uncertain facial expressions whenever they were having these conversations. This gave my student the impression that the other man felt rather uncomfortable and wanted to escape to another table. He admitted that his thoughts during these times sometimes became irrational: for instance, perhaps his boss would much rather be talking to someone else with better language skills – one of his own countrymen, perhaps? The more he thought along these lines, my student said, the worse he felt his Norwegian became, and he had begun to dread these midday meetings.

Foreign Language Anxiety

How to help? I told him about having read a definition in Wikipedia that could be applied to his situation:
Foreign language anxiety (or xenoglossophobia) is the feeling of unease, worry, nervousness and apprehension experienced when learning or using a second or foreign language. These feelings may stem from any second language context whether associated with the productive skills of speaking and writing, or the receptive skills of reading and listening (from MacIntyre, P. D.; Gardner, R. C. (1994). “The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language”. Language Learning 44: 283–305).
Unfortunately, this student was experiencing the Wiki definition’s ‘four feelings’, as he was using a foreign language in a situation that was making him experience ‘unease, worry, nervousness and apprehension’. He felt this due to the context: while from the outside it might appear that he was merely trying to make light small talk with his manager over lunch, he was not only trying to fit in but also impress the other man – the native speaker – with his linguistic skill. He needed to demonstrate that he was an intelligent person who could express himself in his adopted country’s language. He had a need to prove himself in the other’s eyes. He had a need to show that he was smart and worthy of his demanding job. So when his conversational partner gave what he perceived to be as negative feedback, this student quickly sank into an understandably anxious frame of mind. Even more destructively, he had become hyper aware of his accent, of his grammatical mistakes, of his lack of vocabulary when trying to speak the other’s language.
What is more interesting and ultimately helpful is to consider the fact that ‘the other’ in this situation was more than likely experiencing a foreign language anxiety of his own. While his employee felt nervous speaking, he felt just as nervous listening to him. This could happen for any number of reasons: perhaps he hadn’t been around foreign speakers very much when growing up or at university. Maybe he hadn’t had foreign-born employees working for him before. Maybe he was new in the job himself and was adjusting to the demands placed on managers – one of which being to get to know his staff members better in an informal setting. Maybe he was shy. Or, as happens occasionally, maybe he just wasn’t comfortable hearing his language spoken with a foreign ‘twist’ – something that not many people admit to but is nonetheless there. Maybe one of more of these factors had made him less receptive and more anxious when listening to foreign-born speakers in general, and in particular to the employee sitting across from him at lunch.

Newcomer’s Responsibility

What to do? I told my student that, as the newcomer to both the country and company, it was up to him to solve the situation. The best way I’d come up with for dealing with this type of anxiety-creating reaction myself was to be polite but up front about what was going on. So the next time it happened, he needed to tell his boss that he’d gotten the impression that he wasn’t getting his points across very well – was there a better way that he could explain what he meant? He should then acknowledge that his language skills weren’t quite at the level he wanted but that he was working on them. And, most importantly, he should reassure the other: “If you really don’t understand what I’m saying – please, don’t hesitate to ask me so that I can get the chance to rephrase it.” Quite possibly, this proactive dealing with the discomfort would open up the linguistic floodgates between the two men, remove their foreign language anxiety for good. Hopefully, this new honesty would improve their relationship when either working on job-related matters or getting together at other times and talking about, well, everything and nothing, as both native and non-native speakers tend to do without giving it a second thought.

Moving Forward

Did this advice help? A subsequent e-mail from this student told me that it did; after he had said the above phrases one day he and his boss had actually had a good conversation and cleared the air. While the situation’s not perfect, they’re now having more pleasant lunches and moving towards a more easygoing type of interaction, one in which they’re able to leave their foreign language anxiety behind and look forward to a better conversational future together.

Interested in reading more about different aspects of working in an international setting?

Tekna offers several courses designed to make your workday better, both in Norwegian and in English.

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