By William Chase in the New York Times:
Language mavens, be warned: This is not your usual language column, a scholarly take on the ways we speak at home. It’s a look at how we communicate when we live and work abroad.
A friend of mine who works for a multinational food company is being sent to Paris for an extended stay. Knowing I had made a similar move some years ago, for an advertising agency, he asked whether I thought he should take a few French lessons. He wasn’t sure; the company said language wouldn’t be a problem. (One of his predecessors, it seems, boasted that in three years in Paris he hadn’t spoken word of French.)
I advised my friend to forget what the company says and take lessons — the more the better. There is no job for an American in a foreign country where a basic grasp of the language is not a distinct advantage. Even if you don’t actually need it, your effort to learn will be noticed and appreciated by your colleagues (some of whom certainly will be working to improve their English).
Knowing a bit of language will also spare you much frustration. If at first you find the new language heavy going, don’t brood about it. There is no connection I’ve ever seen between aptitude for language and that for business. One of the best people at his job I’ve ever known, an Englishman in Milan with a doctorate in psychology, finally gave up his struggle with Italian. One of the least capable I’ve known spoke three languages besides his own, all self-taught. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
I also advised my friend, even more emphatically: From the moment you arrive on the new job, pay special attention to how you speak your own language. Not only around the espresso machine and across the desk but above all in discussions, meetings and presentations.
In the scores of these I’ve been in myself — in Paris, Milan, Geneva and other places my company had offices — I was often struck by how my compatriots seemed totally oblivious to their surroundings. Why, I wondered, do otherwise intelligent people speak to a foreign audience as though they were back in New York, Dallas or Atlanta?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know a better way to communicate with your local colleagues. The fundamental principle is: Adjust your speech to the language level of the people you are talking to. That may sound condescending, but it’s not — it’s simply putting yourself in the other person’s place.
Take this as your golden rule and you will soon be doing it unconsciously. As to how you do it, a few guidelines:
Beware of idiomatic expressions. We Americans are especially addicted to sports-speak. You may only have ballpark figures, or want someone to touch base, or think you’re in the home stretch. But try to say it in plain English.
Idiomatic obfuscation is not uniquely American, of course. An English art director I knew often wound up a presentation saying, “And Bob’s your uncle.” I eventually learned what it meant — do it like this “and the rest is easy” — but for a while I hadn’t a clue.
Be careful with new words. Don’t reach for words you have only recently acquired; your audience probably has not. I once heard a top executive behoove a group of European managers to proceed a certain way. Do not hone your vocabularly on your fellow workers.
Speak up and speak clearly. Obvious, yes, but most of us don’t always do it, least of all on Monday mornings.
The French have a colorful expression for mumblers: “Il parle dans sa barbe” — “he talks in his beard.” Do not.
Slow down. One benefit of studying another language is that in your early attempts to use it, you will discover how much better you understand when people don’t race through what they’re saying like teenagers at a disco. Again, the golden rule: Put yourself in the other guy’s place.
Never assume that silence around the table means they understand. Check the crucial points. Ask questions to make sure you’ve been clear. Remember, it’s hard for anyone to admit he or she hasn’t understood English.
Especially in front of peers.
Going to work in a foreign country always presents an array of new challenges. Language is one you can easily do something about — and with a big and immediate payoff.
William Chase is a former creative director of McCann Erickson Europe.