The myth about using foreign languages in the workplace.Are your language skills good enough to use in the workplace? Emily Nicole Boaler discussed taking that first step
I remember when it was almost time to graduate, and the time had come to apply for jobs. My big question was whether I was capable of taking my university level languages to 'the next level' which meant using them in the workplace, in other words at business level. It was something that worried me and clearly also worried other future graduates. Looking at job descriptions was daunting. Could I support clients abroad in technical support roles, customer service roles, sales roles? At the beginning I didn't apply for anything. I then told myself I must apply for something and from then on applied for everything I took an interest in that required foreign language skills. At the very worst I wouldn't be considered and would possibly be kept on file. My priority became letting recruitment agencies and companies know that I was there and getting my name out there whether I was taken on or not.
I'd jumped over many hurdles during my degree, especially during the Year Abroad. Obstacles were thrown at me in all shapes and forms, and I always managed to overcome them whether that was arriving in a minus twelve Italy believing that I'd been left without accommodation and my deposit had been taken or the stress of trying to sort out timetables in Spain. The final hurdle I had to jump over was applying for jobs and obtaining one. Many of us believed that adapting our languages to the workplace was going to be a mammoth task. Just the thought of speaking to clients on the phone and using languages for other workplace related tasks seemed way beyond our reach.
After ten years in the working world and spending nine of them mentoring it's clear to see that many linguists will spend years studying and will fall at the final hurdle when it comes to applying for jobs. Some linguists are happy to not use their language skills appreciating the other transferable skills picked up from the degree which is fair enough. I'm talking about graduates who do wish to use their language skills. They will tell themselves that their languages aren’t up to scratch for a role requiring languages, they settle for a job not requiring language skills and then won’t have the confidence to use their languages ever again. I find it sad to see as I'm fully aware of the sheer amount of effort gone into completing a degree in foreign languages and to not use them seems a complete waste.
Firstly, one must ask what are business language skills?
Business language skills are communication skills that help professionals convey information in the workplace. These will vary depending on the role itself. These skills are generally used when listening to your clients/colleagues, building professional relationships, using negotiation and networking skills and for forwarding on essential information. In my role business language skills require listening to clients carefully to understand the technical issue they are experiencing, providing clients with technical updates, working alongside colleagues to find a fix, providing instructions on how to resolve an issue and writing emails. Sometimes I may be asked to translate from English into a foreign language and vice versa.
While I was mentoring current students of foreign languages, they had convinced themselves that their language skills weren't up to scratch and told me things such as 'my language skills are of a university level, but not of a business 'level' or 'my language skills aren't good enough for the workplace'. After a decade in the working world, I wouldn't say that I've had to improve my language skills necessarily. Just like many other students I left university with good grades, I'd spent time living abroad and was studying every day. The way I use them has just changed. Rather than talking about historical and cultural topics in front of classmates and lecturers I am now talking to clients one to one on how to fix technical issues. I'm still using the same grammar, speaking with the same fluency, the same pronunciation and intonation. The only difference is the vocabulary I use and the audience that I speak to.
There is nothing scary about using languages in the workplace. It's less scary than university. At university I was delivering presentations in front of large classes and on topics I had to thoroughly research during a short period of time. Whereas now I'll be speaking to clients on a 1 to 1 level talking about something I work with 8 hours a day 5 days a week. For me, using languages in the workplace is easier than using them at university, whereas it is often viewed as the other way round and that is exactly where the problem lies. This is the reason why language graduates refrain from applying for multilingual roles.
Once you're using your languages in a specific role the specific terms are easy to pick up. I'm often asked 'how are you able to talk about technical issues in a foreign language when you didn't study something technical related?' My answer is normally something along the lines of once you have the foundation of a language you can easily build on it, learn on the job and pick up vocabulary.
Early on in my first role I was petrified to pick up the phone and call a client about a technical issue. I had to quickly learn new terms and tried my best to sound like I knew what I was talking about. These terms included disco duro (hard drive), código de barras (bar code), placa madre (base unit), modo de tránsito (bridge mode) as well as many others. At the beginning this was tough as I had to get to grips with the vocabulary in English first.
Not long into my role clients were asking for myself and my colleague David. Our clients were delighted to ask for technical support in their native language for the first time ever. Prior to our arrival rather than calling and struggling in English they preferred to leave devices unfixed for months and months. Then word got round that there were foreign language speakers and we received a wave of calls. They were understanding and knew that we were new employees. Our clients were genuinely grateful of any support. As time passed, we built up our technical knowledge and we started to build strong client relationships.
The myth is that there is this huge jump from going from university level languages to business level. I’m in job number four and I'm yet to witness this jump. University was tough and demanding, whether that was the huge workload, nailing the grammar, translating, interpreting or delivering presentations on random and complex topics. Studying abroad was demanding on another level for a number of reasons. Using language skills in the workplace is a breath of fresh air compared to constantly being accessed at university. The competency is already there, it's just a matter of learning new vocabulary and speaking to clients on a professional level which again can be done by carefully choosing which vocabulary to use.
If this article has encouraged a linguist to reconsider applying for multilingual roles who has lost confidence in using their language skills or convinced a recent/future graduate to apply for roles requiring foreign languages then this article has definitely served its purpose. Don't fall at the final hurdle, keep reminding yourself how far you've come and keep applying.
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