The Hidden Caveats of Working in Your Second Language

Posted by Aaron Carlino on 18 January 2012

Guest blogger Aaron Carlino is a web developer who is better known in the SilverStripe community by his whimsical pseudonym Uncle Cheese. This is his second time writing as guest blogger. Prior to this, Aaron wrote Why Design Comes First: True Confessions of a Guilty Coder.

A Disadvantageous Advantage

They say it’s an English-speaking world. I disagree.

Why? For one, it’s a patently false statement. The numbers do not support the claim of an English-speaking world. Globally, English speakers are outnumbered vastly by Mandarin speakers by a margin of two-to-one. No one ever says it’s a Mandarin-speaking world, do they?

Maybe we’ll hear more about Mandarin when the hinterlands of China are juiced with high speed Internet, and rice farmers trade in their plows for PCs, but until then, it’s hard to deny that English has a certain edge, at least in the technology-loving sectors of the globe. It would seem then, that in an English-speaking world, the native speakers of this language would be given inherent advantages. Right?

Maybe not. I, for one, feel disadvantaged as a native English speaker. The more I work with international clients, the more I realize that the responsibility and drive to learn English is distributed inequitably across the industrialized world. In Western Europe, fluency in English is a learned skill as fundamental as penmanship. In my corner of the world, the ability to speak anything other than English is a whimsical novelty act that gets dusted off twice a year at dinner parties. This is why I feel disadvantaged as a native English speaker. I get to evade the learning process that the rest of the world has thrust upon them.

I’ve always been fascinated by multilingualism. In high school, I immersed myself in my French classes, and I got really good at it. Today, living only an hour south of Quebec, my proficiency is pretty well honed, and I’d say I’m only a month of residence in Paris away from fluency. I won’t deny that the process of learning a second language is partially driven by ego. It makes me feel like I’m repaying some sort of self-imposed debt to the rest of the world. Beyond that, though, believe it or not, it actually has some practical perks in its own right.

Just over two years ago, I received an email from an entrepreneur in France who wanted to work with a SilverStripe developer who spoke French. As it turned out, all those French posts I made in the forums would really pay off. We’ve had a great working relationship ever since. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work in my second language. It stimulates a part of my brain that craves challenges and discovery.

In the end, however, it’s still a working relationship that comes with its own needs and idiosyncrasies, and introducing a second language can be a handicap in many ways that I never could have predicted. So here is a list of caveats of working in a second language, from a native English speaker who has no business being bilingual.

Caveat #1: You can’t be assertive

Project managers all over the world know how important it is to have good boundaries with your client. You give a centimeter, they take a kilometer. A centimeter here, a centimeter there, and before you know it, your budget is kilometers behind you and you have a metric ton of stress weighing you down. Conversely, a little assertiveness and self-advocacy can go a long way in a client relationship. It earns you respect and makes the project more tenable and enjoyable.

But what happens to assertion when it has to be delivered in your second language? It depends heavily on your level of fluency in the language. If your command of the language is anything short of perfect, you’re going to find yourself at a significant disadvantage.

The brain learns language in stages. At first, we’re just cerebral dictionaries – translating one noun, verb, or adjective to another. It’s a slow, laborious process that takes up a lot of brain bandwidth. As we become more comfortable, that lookup overhead becomes less expensive, and we free up more cycles for things like sentence structure and pronunciation. We start adding some of the polish and flair to our second language, and given enough practice, we might even fool a native speaker into thinking we actually know what we’re doing.

Those stages are all about diction and mechanics. It isn’t until we have a strong command of a second language that any sort of rhetorical component can be introduced. It’s hard to express emotion in your second language when your brain is so busy just trying to keep up with the demand for real-time translations, so demonstrating assertiveness is nearly impossible unless all of the other stages have been mastered.

What does this mean for a client relationship? Well, imagine the scenario:

Client: I need this for tomorrow.

What you want to say: I’m sorry, I can’t do it. That request is out of scope and we’re over budget. Can we pencil that in for phase two?

What you know how to say: No, I can’t do it. It’s a bad request.

Who’s in charge, here? 

Caveat #2: Your intelligence is underrepresented

Language bias is everywhere, in almost every culture. Here in the United States, non-English speakers have faced adversity for decades, and we continue to see movements to make English the national language – a motion that would be punishing to our some 45 million non-English speaking residents. But the USA does not stand alone in this category. The French, for instance, are known for an unforgiving pride in their language, and I got to experience that first hand. I don’t even want to tell you how many Parisians snubbed me at the Métro before someone finally decided my pronunciation of “carte orange” was good enough.

We all assess one another’s intelligence based on their command of language to a certain degree. It’s natural. Language is the best sales representative we have for our intellect. If our representative doesn’t do a good job, it’s an uphill battle from there.

President George W. Bush was routinely torched by the media for linguistic blunders that are now legendary. The overall message was that he was too intellectually bankrupt to be our president. The truth, however, is that, while Mr. Bush’s intelligence may have been lower than almost every other president, it wasn’t outlandishly low by national standards. The problem wasn’t so much his intelligence as it was the disparity between his intelligence and his aptitude for language. His inability to speak well gave the public a perception that he was much dimmer than he actually was. As we know, in this age of rich media and real-time information, perception of the truth trumps absolute truth every time.

On the other hand, those who are adept with language are imbued with a perception of inflated intelligence. I’ve been riding that wave since I was a child. People think I’m smart because I use big words (like “imbued”), but in reality, my I.Q. and S.A.T. scores are fairly middle-of-the-road.

When working in your second language, your intelligence sales representative is shackled by your language competency, or lack thereof, in that language.

Client: I’m concerned about CSRF attacks. What do you have in place for that?

Your intelligence representative: You worry not. Security token great success.

How does this client feel right now?

Caveat #3: “Gross” Misunderstandings

No matter where you are in your competency, it’s inevitable that some of the emerging idioms and slang will be missing from your second language construct, and you’ll end up saying something you really didn’t mean. This is when you just have to hope that the severity of the misunderstanding isn’t going to end the working relationship with your client, or, God forbid, start an international war. For this piece, I’ll refer to a real life example.

Last year, my French client tasked me with signing a document and returning it to him as soon as possible. He sent me a message:

Merci de me rendre ce document dès demain soir !

(Please return this document to me by tomorrow night!)

In my head, I thought of the response, “I’ll put in my queue.” Technically, I didn’t know the French word for “queue,” but it looked fairly “French-friendly,” just based on the letters alone, and I figured it’s probably the same in both languages. So I wrote back:

Je le mets dans ma queue!

(I’ll put it in my….)

Queue? Not quite. As I learned from the inflammatory response, “queue” doesn’t translate gracefully into French. It’s actually slang for an unspeakable part of the human anatomy. When you replace the word “queue” with that word, it doesn’t sound like I’m very open to doing the task at all. In fact, it sounds like I’m refusing it in the most scathing and volatile way imaginable.

Luckily, we had been working together for a while, and we worked things out. If nothing else, I learned a new phrase, “fil d’attente”

(It means “queue”)

…I think.

Props to the Polyglots

Learning another language is hard – especially when you’re insulated by a world where your first language is so well tolerated and understood. Sometimes I look around at all of the English bias in the world, and I marvel at the amount of learning that needs to be done to interact with things I take for granted.

Every day developers work with PHP, Javascript, HTML, and CSS that is entirely based on English words. Every second there are Internet users in Eastern cultures typing Roman characters into their address bars. It’s fascinating to me. I’ve enjoyed learning how challenging it is to remove yourself from the comforts of your native tongue. In fact, I think I’ll write more about that tomorrow. I’ll put it in my…

Well, you know.

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Comments

  • I made that "queue" mistake in equally embarrassing circumstances when living in France. Sigh

    Posted by yeoman, 2 years ago

  • Hi Aaron,

    no need to sell yourself short. Even if your IQ may be standard, your article (and your great silverstripe modules) lift you up ;)

    By the way, this problem doesn't restrict to foreign language but also to technical vocabulary. Clients who never get what is a backend, why they shouldnt just copy paste from MS Word (and so much more...)

    Have a nice day,
    Hendrik

    Posted by Hendrik Schaper, 2 years ago

  • Nice post Aaron! well, as a spanish speaker myself I had lots of funny experiences when learning english, fortunately I learned all the hard stuff before starting to work with international clients.

    One thing that has been really important *at least for me* is being really open and every time I don't understand something mostly because clients uses some incomprehensible slag, is asking immediately. that way you learn new tricks and you don't mess complete projects... but...

    The past year I had an international war declaration kind of trouble with my brother's girlfriend, not only because she is indian and we communicate in english but because there is more than just the language involved in a relation/meeting/working experience: you must learn about the culture of your counterpart. That is really important in most of cases even more important than the language itself! when people comes from distant places you need to understand how they meet people, how you salute them, how they feel about the world, and mostly how they react to your culture!!!

    By today I work in Silverstripe projects for more than 5 countries using english in all of them, but I have this one client... Our mutual friend (yes I have been working with Aaron for the same French client) that uses more French than english (its funny when I enter our basecamp account and try to read most of the posts there... all in french. i feel useless... heheh...) and that's when your third language is really needed.

    Thanks Aaron for the support on translating some messages for me :).

    That project would not have been possible without your help and amazing coding skills, because you talk not only in french and english but sapphire also. I've learned a lot from you in the past year.

    Posted by francisco arenas, 2 years ago @dospuntocero

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