Foreign language learners in the global workplace make spoken and written errors in their new language on a daily basis. Quite often, at least in technology-driven companies, they have been hired because of their education and work background, and not their proficiency in their host country’s native language. While they coast along in English for awhile in their new workplace, at some point many of them feel a strong desire to transition over to their coworkers’ language in order to get a true sense of being integrated and therefore belonging; this is a powerful feeling that applies as equally to adults as it does to children wanting to fit in with their peers. But in order to do so, they have to first make themselves linguistically vulnerable to these others by exposing their mistakes. This happens in all kinds of situations: one-on-one conversations with another project member, giving an opinion during a group meeting, joining in a conversation around the lunch table, discussing operations with a manager, sending out compulsory e-mail reports about project progress, etc. The foreign language learner struggles through this phase – and while it is certainly a phase with a clear beginning, sometimes it seems like there is no end to it. ‘How long will it take before I feel truly fluent’, wonders the FLL – weeks, months, years? And yet if he or she keeps up speaking this new language and doesn’t give in to the desire to speak English, at some point they will start to feel just a tiny bit of self-confidence that might just turn into pride, causing them to think in turn that ‘I’m doing great! People respond to what I say, I’m having conversations. Eureka, I might just have cracked this language code – !’
That is, until you find out that all the native speakers who you thought were answering your nearly perfect language attempts are actually part of a culture whose members are afraid of offending others by pointing out their mistakes. This make-you-laugh-or-cry fact came up a few days ago at an ‘intercultural communication at work’ course, where both native and foreign speakers were present. Fortunately, there was a lot of laughter in the room as several stories were told by FLLs about situations where had said/written something only to find out later that they’d made some kind of humorous error when doing this in their new language. One man had written an e-mail to his boss saying he was going to leave the office for a little while, but had used the incorrect verb and therefore written that he was going to die soon. (And wondered why his boss came rushing down the hall to his office almost immediately after having hit the Send button.) Another woman told a group of native speakers at the lunch table that she was going on a bus trip and would be picked up in the parking lot of a local grocery store – except that she confused her nouns and ended up saying a – well, really bad word that you just don’t use in such public situations.
It can happen to any FLL, and does. But while the e-mail writer at least got a quick response (and learned from his mistake), no one at the time had said anything to the bus traveler, not even cracking a smile when it happened. So she learned of her mistake a long time later just by coincidence when watching TV and hearing the word she herself had used being said in a situation whose meaning was very clear. She told of sitting there with her cheeks burning in embarrassment (had they all had a good laugh that day after she left?) and yet at the same time being angry that no one had uttered a word when it happened – she felt both a bit betrayed by her coworkers and, even worse, like a fool.
At this point the native speakers chimed in – and they did make a good case, as they pointed out that while they were aware of this polite cultural gene, as it were, it was hard to change and become more direct in these potentially awkward situations. They also pointed out that while the multicultural workplace was not exactly new in their country, it was new enough that many people just didn’t know how to respond when a newcomer said or wrote something wrong at work, and it was therefore easiest to say nothing at all. What could or should they do differently the next time this happened?
Opinions were offered right and left, as the question seemed to touch a spot in the FLLs present this evening – they all had something to say about it. What kinds of mistakes should be corrected? How often should a native speaker say something? And where? If it’s a group situation, is it better to correct something in front of everyone else, or wait until you can get the FLL alone and then tell them? They talked and talked…and seemed to agree in the end that ‘natives’ should try to limit their corrections to important words/phrases (nouns and verbs), and not jump on every little mistake (prepositions, etc.). If in a group, it depends on the setting and who is there – is it formal? Then best to wait until afterwards. Informal? – okay to correct something if done in a light and friendly way. And don’t get too critical about their pronunciation unless it’s really off in outer space…
And what about the FLLs – what should they do? More talk…and arrived at the self-produced advice of trying to have a sense of humor about the whole thing (easier for some than others) and not taking corrections as a personal insult. Knowing that they’re intelligent people. Being proud of the fact that they’re out there doing their thing to become integrated – and that there are a lot of people around who would never be able to do what they’re doing (back to the pride element mentioned earlier). And try to learn from their mistakes so they won’t make them again. And understanding that not all native speakers are aware of what they’re going through – or maybe that they want to help, they just don’t know how to do it.
Lastly, they talked about the need to open up and be just a bit vulnerable. This last thought was exemplified perfectly by a man who said that he had started writing e-mails the previous spring to his fellow project members on a regular basis in their language.He knew that his writing skills were poor, and so at the close of each e-mail he asked his readers to please send him suggestions for improvement – in other words, corrections. He told us that he got a wonderful response to his request, and that in the end it not only improved his writing – and linguistic self-confidence – but also led to his having several good conversations with these coworkers and getting to know them all quite a bit better in the process…could an example of intercultural communication at work get any better?
It couldn’t, and was a great note to end the evening on – and I did just that, wishing my students the best of luck with their own future communication in the global workplace.