THE BLOG

Being Successful in a Foreign Language Environment

13/09/2013 17:01 BST | Updated 13/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Being a Bulgarian who has lived, studied and worked in three different cities on two continents, apart from my home country (Vienna, New York and London to be precise), I am quite passionate about both the opportunities and challenges brought by multiculturalism. So it's no surprise that when my brother sent me thisFinancial Times article ("Lessons in a common language", April 18) and suggested I write my next blog on the topic it explores, I could not wait to do it.

In today's world where companies' best chance for growth is to build diverse teams based across a number of national borders, few think about the challenges that come with asking a multilingual workforce to communicate in a common language. The article argues that such a situation can "create winners and losers" and that "businesses need to recognise - and find ways of counteracting - the prejudice that can subtly bias promotions in favour of candidates who are fluent talkers, rather than fluent thinkers and able doers." Apart from distinguishing between substance and style and respecting different modes of communication, the piece offers many practical tips on how companies can boost employees' confidence through building language education into the working day.

This inspired me to create my own short list of tips, but from an employee point of view - a list of "how to make sure that you succeed in a foreign language environment". Here is my two pennies worth:

Be proactive and open - Building your confidence in a language is often about trying to emerge yourself as much as possible into it. When I lived in Vienna, practicing German was often out of the question because everyone was fluent in English. Plus, it was difficult to hold a normal conversation when it took me 5 minutes every time I tried to construct the simplest of sentences. But I was eager to learn and decided to find alternative ways of practicing the language. I watched a lot of newscasts, read books, and held a job as a reporter at a local business newspaper where I had to write articles in German. Being a student at the time, I even found a babysitting gig where I was able to practice with the two little kids I had to look after.

Stay confident by putting yourself out of your comfort zone - When I started my professional career in an English speaking country, I often found myself struggling with expressing my point of view succinctly and eloquently during presentations. My confidence was affected, of course, but I knew that without pushing myself outside of my comfort zone there was going to be no way for me to ever overcome this. So I put myself through numerous trainings, took every opportunity there was to present and eventually reached a point where, despite not being always perfect, I had the self-assurance to stand up and communicate my thoughts in English, regardless of the size of the audience.

Be curious - Learning a language is often tied to learning a culture. It's important to stay curious about the country, region, etc. where a certain language was born so that you can understand the logic behind it better and eventually have easier time internalising it. I have a very multicultural group of friends and I've always been curious to know as much as possible about their backgrounds, traditions, language expressions. I think it has been this natural curiosity that has helped me to understand them better, but to also have an inclination to pick up languages.

Seek feedback - Learning languages can sometimes be a lesson in humility. You have to play down your ego and be proactive in consistently asking for feedback in order to improve. If you feel awkward about it, remember that your own country also has certain colloquialisms that you wouldn't expect others to know off the cuff. Finally, never feel embarrassed to seek feedback, but also don't let others make you feel ashamed when doing so.

Be vocal - It sounds really obvious, but sometimes you just have to approach things with a nonchalant manner and realise that "not all eyes are on you" when you speak with an accent. Fear of being misunderstood or making a mistake when you speak should never stop you from communicating your point of view. You have to speak up, regardless of the mistakes you may make, because people often appreciate the fact that you have voiced your opinion. You have to also, however, be receptive of how much the person in front of you understands what you are saying. And if they don't - rephrase it; use your hands; use an image to easily describe what you mean, but never stop communicating.