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Walking in a Non-Native English Speaker’s Shoes


Have you ever had a meeting with non-native English speakers and wondered why they were so quiet, when previously they had been full of ideas on the same subject? Have you ever noticed the native English speakers dominating conversation at a company gathering? Or have you ever been speaking with a non-native English speaker and felt like you weren’t getting through, despite their impressive mastery of the language? With English being the lingua franca in many global settings these days, many native English speakers can function perfectly well on the international stage without learning a second language. If everyone else is learning their language, there’s no point, right? Think again. This actually puts native English speakers at a disadvantage, since they have never had the experience of learning and communicating in a foreign language. That is about to change.


Today, you will be transported to an alternate universe where learning the fictional language of Fremanish is essential to your professional life. You will spend some time with fictional person Mike, a mechanical engineer from Chicago who works for internationally renowned company (unknown to everyone but you and I, for this too is fictitious) Technically Top-Notch Inc. His company has been expanding recently and is setting up offices in the city of Parburg located in Fremany. Fremany is a beautiful country somewhere in Europe and an economic powerhouse. Fremanians generally only speak Fremanish, so everyone else learns the language in order to get in on the wealth of business opportunities available there and easily travel to this wonderful country. Now that you know a bit about the country, we’ll let Mike take it from here.


Mike’s Story: Preparing

Hi, my name is Mike. Aware of how important Fremanish would be in the modern business world, my parents enrolled me in Fremanish classes starting at the age of twelve. I considered it more of an opportunity to devour Fremanish literature and cinema than anything else. With all that Fremanish language drifting through my leisure time activities as a child, I became quite proficient in the language. As a matter of fact, it was that very proficiency that garnered me a position as a mechanical engineer at world-renowned manufacturing company Technically Top-Notch after college. This year my boss Laura gave me a golden opportunity to prove my worth to the company when she asked me to fly to Parburg, Fremany to check up on construction of our new location there. Excited for this new step in my career, I immediately agreed. Wanting to be ready to impress, I also immediately kick my efforts to maintain proficiency in Fremanish into high gear. Although I am always corresponding with my counterparts in Fremany and I regularly read magazines in Fremanish, there has been little time for language maintenance since I’ve started my career. I haven’t heard another person speak Fremanish in ages, let alone spoken to anyone myself. Speaking is the hardest part of using the language, since it happens in real time and there’s no opportunity to look anything up. Understanding Fremanish has always been easier than expressing myself in it, although listening is also rather difficult. Words are so fleeting when spoken and clarity depends fully on the accent and talking speed of the person you’re listening to. Hopefully I can get up to speed in time.


Holed up in seat 2C on a transatlantic flight from Chicago to Parburg, I’ve been sampling popcorn from the variety pack purchased at the organic foods store near Gate 23 and watching Fremanish movies for six hours now. They speak so much faster in movies. If I can understand the actors in movies, I feel like I’ll be ready for anything. When I first started practicing several hours ago, my understanding was spotty at best. The longer I listen though, the more I am picking up. It takes a ton of concentration. By hour 7, I’m so exhausted that I drift off to sleep.


Movies permeate my dreams. I go to the grocery store to buy the rich Fremanish chocolate I enjoy so much. What do they do to it to make it so delicious? As I take a bite, I think longingly of all the things I could cook with it if I were in the United States. Such chocolatey goodness was simply meant to be incorporated into the best American dessert recipes. Closing my eyes to fully enjoy the rich, chocolatey flavor, I open them to find I’m standing on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, chocolate bars in hand. Disoriented, I realize everyone is still speaking Fremanish for some reason. The only sensible thing to do seems to be to buy a ticket home at the bus stop, but the woman at the counter yells at me in Fremanish. Irritated that I’m not speaking English, she refuses to sell me a ticket. Never mind that she doesn’t seem to speak a word of English. Confused at the inherent contradictions of the situation and still jealously guarding the Fremanish chocolate I brought along, I open my mouth to ask what she means and am interrupted again. “Wake up!” she says in Fremanish. Suddenly I am awakening on the airplane. No Fremanish chocolate, no bus ticket, and a flight attendant staring at me. “We have arrived” she tells me in Fremanish and continues down the isle.


Mike’s Story: Putting His Skills to the Test

The next day, I get up early and walk ten minutes along beautiful cobblestoned streets to our temporary office in downtown Parburg. Project manager Martin, who has been managing construction of the new building, greets me upon arrival. I remember the first time I spoke with Martin one year ago. It was a prearranged conference call without video conferencing, and I was absolutely petrified. Without body language or a visual context for our discussion, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to understand a thing. My worries were unfounded, however, and the phone call went just fine. Today she’s updating me on what I’ve missed since our last email a month ago. Seeing everything in person makes it so much more real, it is exciting to see such concrete progress! He shows me some of the blueprints for the current build and we discuss the finer points of the changes we have recently decided to incorporate. We engage in a lively discussion, covering a range of important topics. Overall the meeting goes very well and I leave feeling completely satisfied.


A few hours later, there is a meeting to discuss the project with the architect, construction overseer, our future building maintenance crew, and managers of departments that will be using the building. Once everyone is settled in their seats, Martin strides to the front of the room. Speaking casually, he makes a seemingly off-topic comment that everyone laughs at. That went completely over my head, but I guess it doesn’t matter. I’m here for the meat of the discussion. Even though I practiced my Fremanish yesterday, it takes every ounce of concentration I can muster to follow the quick exchange of conversation between Martin and the architect at the beginning. I definitely have some ideas to interject, but by the time I’ve figured out what they just said and formulated my own thoughts into Fremanish, someone has already responded or they’ve moved on to a different subject. It’s frustrating, but speeding up such mental aerobics is easier said than done! I succeed in taking the floor eventually by interjecting a short word such as “yes”, “but”, “well” and then “aaaaahhhh” until I figure out what I’m going to say. After doing it a few times, I wonder if I sound silly sitting there saying nothing for seconds on end. It is also proving impossible to express my ideas in the streamlined, intelligent way I usually do in English. I’m pretty sure my message is getting across, but it doesn’t sound nearly as academic or sophisticated as my usual English-speaking self. With my strong desire to impress on this, my first great opportunity with the company, I feel a twinge of frustration and embarrassment – like someone who has worn jeans and a t-shirt to a black-tie event and doesn’t have access to a tuxedo. There is no option other than to press on though. None of the people present speak English and I’ve got to get the job done right for the head office in the US. Despite my frustrations, the meeting goes well. Although it was impossible to participate fully and interject all of my opinions and ideas into the meeting, I do manage to communicate the most important things. After the meeting, my linguistic self is glad to have an opportunity to rest.


Mike’s Story: Interference

A construction site tour is on the agenda the next day and Martin greets us at the front door of the new building, ready to give us a tour of the progress made so far. There are a lot of familiar faces from yesterday and some new ones as well. We don construction hats as Martin explains that the on-site workers have been instructed not to do any loud work during our tour. We start on the ground floor, which Martin explains will soon house an airy lobby with restrooms and an theater. Up a flight of grand stairs at the center of the lobby are three levels of offices and conference rooms. It is all still under construction, so Martin stops periodically to explain what will be located where in each of the vital areas of the building. Now that I’ve been in Fremany for a while, my Fremanish skills are getting better by the day. This day is a challenge though. I was never so acutely aware of it when speaking English, but the volume of people’s voices changes as they turn their heads and there is a tendency for words within a sentence to go unheard. It must not have been an issue for me in English, because I was so familiar with the language that my brain had a built-in “autocomplete” of sorts. Here it causes a struggle, since I am not as familiar with the most common phrases and am not sure which words I’ve missed or how the meaning might be affected. The problem turns many of Martin’s sentences into unintelligible, holey patchworks of words and phrases. As we enter the production hall back on the ground floor behind the lobby, a metal plate goes clattering to the ground – dropped by one of the workers. Oh what a difference a few seconds make in a foreign language! I have no idea what I missed during that brief cacophony. Luckily, it was a rather informal meeting. I am able to walk beside Martin in between rooms and ask about anything I have missed.


Finally, at the back of the production hall, we stop in front of one of the first machines to be installed. I would later learn that it was an electroplating machine for treating metals. During my review of Fremanish vocabulary and grammar, however, I had not reviewed any electrical or chemical vocabulary. This leaves me up the creek without a paddle, with the ensuing conversation sounding like another language has invaded Fremanish and stolen all its grammar. None of the words are even remotely familiar and at first, I figure I must not be listening hard enough. After straining and concentrating in vain for a few minutes, I realize these must all be words I haven’t learned. Remarkable how someone can be speaking the same language as you and yet you don’t understand a word. Luckily, I can at least tell they are discussing the function of the machine, which isn’t vitally relevant to my trip here. If I just figure out what the thing is later, I will have all the information I need to do my job. Maybe Martin would be up for another one-on-one discussion as we walk out the door.


There were many more meetings and tours before I finally flew home to Chicago. By the time my trip came to a close, I had achieved everything I had come to do and set our offices up for success! Using my English again for the first time in three weeks is a welcome rest from the mental challenge of constantly formulating my thoughts in another language. Although communicating in Fremanish was definitely a challenge, I would do it all again in a heartbeat! I hope taking you along for the ride has given you valuable insight into the challenges of communicating in a foreign language that you can apply to your interactions with non-native speakers.


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