Working Successfully in a Second Language

View of Nice and the bay from Nice Old Town.

When you stepped into your current position, how many different jobs were you taking on? Did you have any idea? Firehead author Chris Morgan, give an overview of communication responsibilities many second-language speakers, and introverts, can deal with on the job that are often not on the job description.

The job, on paper at least, might be covered by one description and a single salary. But the various roles and channels of responsibility and communication you hold might feel more than what one person can be reasonably expected to do well.

If that’s you, I hope you have the salary and/ or the job satisfaction to match it. 

But what about all the other roles of life that aren’t covered by a salary or benefits package, and don’t come with 4 weeks paid holiday per year? Parent, spouse, carer, neighbour, friend, son, daughter-in-law, running-partner, volunteer- etc, etc.

Many of these can be split further into more roles. Parent or carer alone might feel like a 100 distinct jobs on any one day.

How the roles divide for you, at home, in your community and at work is unique. You’ll have varying degrees of control over them. Sadly for much of this work and for many people who have to do it, there’s little or no control, and perhaps never will be. 

But it’s likely you have more room to negotiate in your job than you realise, even if it’s just talking to your boss about reprioritisng your workload, or getting some valuable training lined up. If you haven’t examined and defined your own roles for a while, perhaps it’s time you did? Because as the saying goes, if you don’t have a plan, you’ll soon become part of someone else’s.

I recommend you do an audit of your language roles too if you have them, because you aren’t just a student of a language any more. You’re living and working roles IN it. 

Start by defining and recognising your various identities as an X-language user today – learner, mentor,  presenter, teacher, colleague, networker, interviewer, writer etc.

Check in on each of them. See how they’re doing and give a little support where you can, praise where it’s due, and maybe even some tough love if it’s necessary. Because like other roles or identities in life, a few will be flying, others you’ll be doing OK, but some might be feeling unrecognised, unnoticed or unloved – not only by others, perhaps by you too.

If you’re not sure where to start, or how to get the help you need to where you need it most, why not begin with the areas where you feel that imposter syndrome, or performance anxiety the most? Ask yourself if this is an issue that’s unique to your second or third language self, or if it’s an amplification or an extension of how you feel (or used to feel) in your first language(s).

If it’s a familiar feeling like social anxiety for example, you probably learnt to overcome, or at least adapt to it long ago. If so, it might help now to reflect on the strategies you used, or still use in your default language.  Then think about how you might apply similar solutions, or combine them with some situation-specific language training/ practice in number 2 language as well.

It’s easy to forget that languages need to be more than just learnt. To make them really work for you they also need to become embedded in your life and work. Become a part of who you are. Specifically, they need to take on the different roles you perform, some of which will be completely new and some signficantly harder to get right than others. 

If this is true for you, try the following 3 steps:

  1. Take time to reflect on the various roles you perform in a secondary language.
    Then choose no more than 3 that need the most attention and support now, and start there. For each role or situation, take a moment to assess how you feel about, or perceive your abilities. Do this as fairly and objectively as you can (and if you’re something of a perfectionist take a little more time).
  2. Now collect as much evidence as you can
    This proves, again objectively, how successful you are at getting your messages across in that role – NOT how fancy (or not) your words or technique is.
  3. And finally, lower your expectations.
    Not your standards, your expectations. They’re more likely to be too high than too low – especially if you work in second language English. Because everyone speaks English, right? Well, not really, that’s not helpful. Make sure your expectations are firmly in the realistic and achievable range. Then, take small, manageable steps towards long term improvement. One, perhaps two, but definitely no more than three roles at a time.

Curious to know more? Planning to present at work in a second language? Just need to boost your courage for working in a foreign language environment? Firehead has a course, Presenting in English with Equal Impact, that was created just for that. Check it out!

CJ Walker

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