Almost a year ago I have taken on my first formal leadership role as team lead. I have had experience from informal leadership roles (project leader, central function position) in cross-cultural contexts and some theoretical knowledge on cross-cultural management. Now I was curious about the concept of leadership in cross-cultural settings and enrolled in a university course on that topic. This is part two of a series of three posts (find part I here, part III here) describing my main learnings from the course.
I did it again. After 6 ECTS in a summer school course covering the brain & behavior, I took a 15 ECTS distance course covering neuroscience basics. Along the way, I documented insights which challenged my knowledge and practice in human resource management and beyond. This post consists of three parts: first, I shared the most insightful questions and answers from my course, second, you will find some of my general reflections and finally, you can find a section with recommended further resources. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: As a neuroscience professional you might find these basics mundane and simplified, if even incorrect. In case of the latter, please reach out and support me in my learning process.
Learning a new language is as exciting as it is nerve-racking. You memorize vocabulary, try to understand the grammar (and all the exceptions from the rule), read your first texts, listen to the radio. But the true challenge with language learning are the social situations. Being surrounded by people that only speak the language you are about to learn. Starting your new job where you are the first non-native colleague to join the team. Joining your target-language-native partner for the first family visit far out of your comfort zone. Which ever situation it is for you, having a person at your side for support is a great way to engage in social stations more easily. But what is it exactly this person should support your with and how do you want to be supported in your social language learning process? Here are some guiding principles which have worked for me, as a learner and a supporter.
- Praise for the progress: “Wow, you speak English so well!” sounds familiar? It’s meant as a compliment but actually most of the people saying it can only judge your ability from a specific situation they have meto you in. I stopped saying this sentence. Especially in bigger gatherings. It brings language learners in this awkward situation where everybody joins in and even the last person becomes awarw of the fact that one is non-native. Especially in these rough moments when you are so close to giving up, praising progress is worth a lot. Hearing ‘But do you remember the time you could not even pronounce ‘squirrel’ at all is gold not only in times of despair. It’s a good way to keep track of your progress through the lense of somebody else. This requires the ability to spot systematic errors paired with the ability to share these observations in a motivational way.
- Understanding the root-cause for not understanding something: In numerous situations I heard the same sentence all over again even though I was only missing one of the words. Or people directly translated the entire sentence inot my narive languge. This is helpful in situations where information have to travel fast. As a language learning support you are able to spot the root-cause more concretly and take it from there. Which word could be difficult and new? Does the sentence contain a special name or saying? The more time language learner and supporter spend together, the easier it is to figure that out. If you both join the same gathering, a short eye-contact and a whispered word in exchange can ease up the situation and will not stop the ongoing discussion.
- If you have to correct, try to do it indirectly: Correcting someone can not only be impolite but destroy the flow of a conversation. There is an easy way out. Instead of correcting the language learner who says “I remember the last time when we meet.” say “Me too. Wasn’t that when we met at Joe’s?”. Correcting in this way has two benefits. First of all, other listerners are now able to follow and the learner hears the correct version as a direct feedback.
- Judge someone’s linguistic skills based on several different occasions: Speaking a language depends on your daily mood and energy level. Try not to judge somebody’s language capability from one occasion only.
- Decide on a translation target language in case paraphrasing does not work.
- Try not to adjust your speaking style of you don’t have to.
While spontaneous parties don’t prepare that much preparation, work scenarios might do. In either way, the language socialisation benefits both the learner and the supporter. It does not only teach language but communication skills.
At the workplace: For that both of the parties have to prepare (training necessary // In bigger teams, decide on distinctive roles “learner”, “socialsator”, “teacher” // Find out and Discuss how someone can support you in social situations // At times it simply will not work out.
In the current issue of Human Resource Management Review (27/3) Marcello Russo, Gazi Islam and Burak Koyuncu bring our attention to a phenomenon I have written about earlier– how language, and more specifically non-native accents could affect our thoughts, feelings and actions in the workplace. Moving towards a diverse workplace often involves bringing people with diverse linguistic backgrounds together. With English as lingua franca this is not problem at all or is it?
The challenge of defining proper language requirements
To establish some kind of strategy around language skills in a corporation does not seem to come naturally. Whereas larger, multi-national corporations might discuss an English language strategy, it is the local language of smaller firms which often acts as knock-out criterion for competent job seekers. Funnily enough, this also depends on the position to be filled. Where programmers might get along without speaking the native language, HR employees see themselves in the opposite situation. When you receive enough applicants, language can be a convenient and easy-to-apply gate-keeper. But does this gate filter for competent employees?
New employees need to do both, perform on the job and socialize with their colleagues. If they lack knowledge of the local language, they will never be able to do both, won’t they? Digging deeper, the answer does not seem as straight forward anymore. Defining, assessing and nurturing (not yet existing) language skills can be key to attract and retain long-wanted competence. This post analysis four scenarios. All of them line out challenges which can occur when language requirements are everything but not thought through.
What is a good command of German? – It depends.
As with all competencies, language requirements read differently depending on the role and the context of the job and the company.
How would you interpret “very good command of German” in a barista’s job description for a coffee-house franchise in Vienna compared to the same requirement for a corporate purchaser in a multi-national firm with their headquarter in Hamburg?
It all depends. The barista would need German to be able to read work and shift instructions and to communicate with (German-speaking) colleagues. For customers ordering in German, s/he needs to communicate with customers in a limited and repetative context. Customers order a drink (mostly some sort of coffee), maybe a snack, might have their particular special (soya-free, low-fat, etc.), pay in cash or with card, and then wait for their order to be served. Someone with basic German knowledge (or even without any) would be able to learn the phrases needed within some weeks – as soon as s/he is motivated enough. The corporate purchaser has to negotiate with external vendors, has to understand terms and conditions as well as legal contracts. The vocabulary and communication skills are more advanced, also taking into account that some statements might be legally binding. Most likely, someone without basic German knowledge would not be able to do the job right away. The interpretation of the description “very good command of German” depends.