Working in a second language
A few years ago, I wrote this note after a work meeting…
“I did it again, coming out of a meeting feeling stupid and angry with myself. I had pictured those 10 minutes thousands of times in my head where everything seemed so clear and outlined.
While messing up or going off rails seemed impossible, I still did. If going around in circles is not bad enough, communicating in a second language does not help! I mumble, I get a prominent accent, sometimes I forget words and I lose confidence. I used to present in front of hundreds of people in my home country smiling without mumbling.
But, is it really the second language at this point? Or is it just the lack of confidence caused by my past struggles with the language that traumatized me? I had this realization while in the meeting, and still couldn’t turn It around.
I just sat there and thought ‘please, somebody fire me’. All those classes, practice groups and whatsoever are not working! Especially, when I need to communicate under pressure, having limited time or with someone that I find intimidating.
Not being able to communicate my thoughts like I wished feels damaging for the soul. It feels like my mind is trapped in a bottle and won’t find peace."
I can’t believe I wrote this about myself a few years ago. I would never do it now, at least not with that intensity. I found this note organizing my files and realized how quickly, sometimes, we can forget our past struggles as we keep progressing in our careers and found it worth sharing. Perhaps someone is feeling today the same way I felt back then.
What’s interesting is that the receivers never ever perceived me the way I am describing here and if you are in a situation where someone is judging you for that, you should not be near them.
Once, I walked into a big meeting in a new job pronouncing Sean literally like Sean instead of “Shon” and nobody knew who I was calling out until a good soul noticed what I meant. It was embarrassing but today I laugh about it and I realize how far I have come.
On month 3 after moving to the US I still could not complete a phone interview successfully. Occasionally, I would simulate bad reception, so I would have the chance to reschedule. I could not follow the conversation thoughtfully and I remember how hopeless I felt like it was yesterday.
I am still, and will always be, working on my language skills because I won’t ever stop learning but today and looking back, I can speak more confidently in presentations or meetings that I find intimidating and I actually enjoy it. I never thought I would say that and what’s more, I never thought I would be leading some of the meetings I do today.
I no longer think a second language is a barrier but a blessing. It was never a barrier but a catalyst. I wonder if all the effort I put into it also helped me enhance my overall communication skills.
There is not a single training that magically helped me improve but a mix of small actions, patience and consistency. Here are a few things that helped me, even If did not think so at that time, but today I can say they did:
Watching films in English without subtitles so I would not feel tempted to read.
Purposefully trying to understand song lyrics.
Reading business books.
Storytelling and performing classes.
Conducting my own workshops and presentations outside my regular job.
Talking and participating in meetings even if I did not have to present.
Volunteering and engaging in activities where I had to expose myself.
Started laughing and adapting an ‘improv’ attitude instead of getting upset with myself in situations under pressure.
When I look at my past posts and articles full of grammatical errors, I constantly think about deleting them but I won’t. They keep me grounded and keep me real.
If you are trying to develop a life in a second language, don't get discouraged, celebrate each milestone and embrace the progress. Remember what's big picture when you feel like you are falling backwards, because there is a beautiful picture. It's just that in difficult moments, we don't always get to see it. If I could go back, I would take it with a much lighter heart.