Last week a friend revealed that he had lost an important new client. They simply weren’t satisfied with his work and they cited, principally, his language skills. He knew that he was reaching — it was a project for which he couldn’t work in his native tongue so it was twice the work to manage — but, in especially citing his language skills, well, the news was a blow to his ego.
How can we make the most of our (sometimes less-than-perfect) language skills at every level and get work done without too much anxiety?
Go Ahead and Reach
As I said last week, the language industry is something that I fell into. (Judging by the comments, I am hardly alone.) And while we who are working for Moravia understand the extra value that native speakers bring to translation work, there’s no denying that there are plenty of others working in client fulfillment — in project management, in IT, in sales, and more — who are expected to meet client needs in their languages rather than our own. There’s plenty of success in it — we humans are generally a flexible and generous lot — but stereotypes about projects and customer support that are outsourced to “foreigners” make it less than smooth sailing too.
Should we let the choppy waters stop us? No, because language learning, like any other venture, is an experience achieved through cycles of success and failure. That we are an expert in certain work areas in our mother tongue serves as our bridge through these challenges, our path to delivering good results in the other language too. But we won’t know that if we never bother to try at all.
As someone who has made her living in communications for quite some time, I’ve experienced foreign language learning — learning German, specifically — as a big, red reset button. It doesn’t matter if testing shows that I have increased my comprehension and writing composition skills over time, I still feel like a babbling toddler. (That is, until I hear babbling toddlers and recognize that I am actually far less proficient.)
I’m not wrong in that judgment. Research has shown that second language acquisition is far more difficult for adults and with strikingly poorer results. But it’s not impossible to achieve near-native fluency. Far from it. Despite the stereotypes, poor non-native language skills are neither the evidence of stupidity nor the proof of disinterest — it is what it is. But given time, practice, and opportunity, you will continue to achieve. There’s no going back.
And there’s no magic formula but this: you get it wrong, you get it right. Keep going.
Call for Backup
There’s nothing wrong with “wrong” if you’re also committed to getting it right. But right has two parts: learning by doing and learning from others. In wanting to learn from others, especially in language, we’ve got to acknowledge that there are rules — in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and context — that, once learned, will ground and enhance everything that we first learned from just winging it.
Whether this linguistic backup is additional classroom instruction, paid coaching, eLearning, or practice materials, feel free to see it as aiding your discovery rather than as your daily serving of humiliation pie.
And as I mentioned above, having an outsider’s perspective — what’s provided by testing and evaluation — helps you see where you are and where you can go.
I have had to say these things to myself plenty of times as I use and learn German, so consider this my virtual high-five to you and others for sticking with it. As we travel the world, in real life and online, and as we improve our ability to work multilingually, we find that, truly, it’s worth the effort.