I’ve lived in two countries outside of my homeland, and in both instances, I have taken the initiative to learn the language. Now, you might think: You’re a software developer, you don’t need to learn the local language. And that’s true. In both cases, I was hired to speak English. In both cases, you can get away with not speaking the local language. So then why would I learn languages? Let me ask you a question: if you worked for an international company and a foreigner became your peer but didn’t put an effort to speak or learn the local culture, how would you view him/her?
Languages are barriers
Have you ever felt alienated because the people around you were speaking another language? Perhaps you thought it was rude? I know in New Zealand we feel it’s rude for people to speak in another language when everyone around you can’t understand. However, when you’re in a foreign country, it’s not rude. Let me explain. In Germany, for instance, Germans will often speak in German (or their dialect) when speaking with their friends. If it’s your native language in your native country — it’s okay.
Now, at work, mostly they were kind enough to speak English with me until I got good enough to understand German. In fact, in Germany, they were very accommodating for any newcomers. The general rule was, that if someone in the team couldn’t understand, then we’d all switch to English. Helpful right? But not so great if you want to learn the language.
In Thailand, things are a little different. English is not as widely adopted as in Germany. So, Thais actually will tend to talk in Thai even if there’s a foreigner who can’t understand Thai there. If you ask, they will explain. But it’s still a major barrier to be accepted into your team.
Culture is hidden in a language
I only have two experiences of learning a language. German and That. Although my Thai is nowhere near speaking level yet. One thing I have noticed is that culture is very much ingrained and intertwined with the language. Subtle differences if you speak English with your colleagues you’d miss. For instance, Germany is quite an exact language whereas English is typically vague. So, one thing I’ve learned in Germany is that when explaining or presenting something, you usually have to go into the details of what you mean. Whereas in English you can paint a picture with a broad brush and no one would question you.
In Thailand, I’ve noticed a lot of conversation (in Thai) involves food. Food is the culture of Thailand. If you’re speaking English, they’re probably not going to talk to you about food. But if you speak Thai, you can hear all about their breakfast etc. This is something you’d miss if you never bother to learn the local language.
It helps to know a little
Seriously, learning a little will go a long way. Learning from your colleagues is the best way to start. You’ll see smiles popping up everywhere as you make mistakes and learn. You’ll feel better because you’ll have more fulfilling connections with your colleagues and even potentially make more friends. No one will judge you for your mistakes. You can use the little phrases you learn every day. You can start to recognise the numbers. Even the small things will make you appreciate what it’s like to learn another language. Trust me, and you’ll start to enjoy your workplace more.
It takes time to learn a language. I’m not arguing that it does. But the benefits far outweigh the negatives. You’ll connect more with the locals and your colleagues. You’ll see more smiles and start to understand the jokes. You’ll see the culture like you never saw it before. I feel it’s worth it to make an effort if you’re in a foreign country. English may have helped you get there, but learning the local language will help you settle in.
My advice: Break down the walls and learn. It’ll help you for years to come.
Originally published at www.alexaitken.nz on March 19, 2018.