Working with English as a Second Language

Sophie Burton
Sophie Burton

May 19th, 2022

Jessie visiting the Tell office in York

One of the things we’re proud of here at Tell, is the strength of the international connections that we’ve managed to develop as we’ve continued to grow. Naturally, having projects and employees all over the globe, means that we’re constantly interacting with different cultures and languages. We recognise that, as is the case for a number of our employees, many individuals engaged in remote and international work, do not speak English as their first language. Though becoming an increasingly common occurrence, this is something that we feel is not discussed anywhere near enough. Therefore, we wanted to take this opportunity to delve into this challenge that so often we forget the individuals we work with are tackling everyday.

We spoke to some of our incredible Tell team members Jessie, Juliana and Rafael about their experiences, so that we can share their struggles and their achievements, and hopefully bring some awareness to the impact that language has in people’s everyday life.

As an international company, we work on numerous projects across continents and many members of our team aren’t native English-speakers. We interviewed them about their experiences of working with English as a second language, and asked them what it was that they wished more people realised about how it impacts them day-to-day.

Many of them mentioned the insecurities that often come with working in another language, explaining that even after many years of working in a primarily English speaking environment, there are still times when it can be difficult. As Juliana, part of our administrative team, explained, ‘it’s never the same level of comfort speaking as you would have talking in your mother language’. Rafael, who also works as part of our administrative team, told us how though ‘some days everything goes smoothly and there’s no sense of a language barrier at all, there are other times where comprehension is affected’.

Jessie identified the way that often, in the process of learning the English language as a non-native speaker, you learn largely with an American influence, which means you then face the challenge of ‘adapting to the British way of speaking’. Juliana also pinpointed the fact that it’s not just getting a grasp of the English language that brings difficulties, you also have to familiarise yourself with the variety of regional adaptations to dialect that present themselves. She rightly stated that some of the hardest elements are ‘the things that aren’t in the English classes’, like the various slangs, acronyms and abbreviations that we take for granted as common understanding. She also added that these smaller differences complicate some of the more social elements of being part of a work team, like understanding humour and more informal, anecdotal conversation.

We all acknowledge that explaining and understanding technology can be difficult at the best of times, if you’ve ever tried explaining a smartphone to a grandparent, you’ll know what I mean. Especially in our industry, where so much of our work is engaged with technology, the task of explaining processes to someone can be incredibly taxing, but as Jessie reminds us, it’s a whole new level of complication when you’re trying to explain in a different language. As you might know, different languages go beyond just the words, the differences come in our ways of speaking and phrasing too, the intricacies of expression extend beyond literal translation. As Jessie explains, the way she might go about explaining something, can differ completely from the way of phrasing it in English, and often it can feel like an explanation or a translation is ‘incomplete’, because it’s not exactly how she would say it if she was speaking in her natural way.

This is echoed by Juliana, who attests that despite speaking the language in a work environment for a long time now, she still finds certain situations such as receiving voice notes with people talking fast, or meetings in a noisy environment, to be a taxing experience. She notes that some of the challenges that come with remote working, like intermittent connection or disruptive background noise, means video calls are only half-audible, a problem that is exacerbated for those who are having to process all this information along with balancing multiple languages.

However, it’s not all a negative experience. With the difficulties that it brings, there are also many benefits and triumphs to be celebrated around this topic. Rafael highlighted the ‘potential that this kind of linguistic exchange can provide us’, explaining how it encourages people to ‘allow more empathy, not only in the work environment, but also as individuals’. He added that though there are obstacles and moments of difficulty, there is nothing that can’t be solved by asking questions, and says that these situations also provide some ‘fun moments’ amongst your colleagues.

Jessie explained that she feels the most important thing her colleagues do to support her is continuing to be open and patient, and that knowing that those around her are always happy to help makes things easier. Rafael explained the feeling of support he finds in ‘knowing he works in a company that provides professional activities, work relationships and a great presence of cultural diversity’.

Here at Tell, we really appreciate the importance of fostering an accessible and supportive space for everyone we work with. We believe our team are our biggest assed and we aim to support them in any way we can. Our team all explained the way they feel Tell supports them in celebrating their identity and encouraging an accessible working environment. I think Juliana really captured our ethos when she said, ‘our differences are seen as our strengths’, an attitude that we want to continue to promote, recognising a person’s skills and talent regardless of their language or background.

As we continue to grow, we hope to continue developing an environment that is welcoming and dedicated to creating a multicultural dynamic, where staff feel safe and supported. We couldn’t be more proud of our team and as we recognise the extra work that is needed for those who are working in a language different to their own, we aim to continue raising awareness of the impact of this experience, and celebrate the achievements that these wonderful individuals make everyday that can easily be forgotten.

Many thanks to Jessie, Juliana and Rafael for sharing their experiences with us so that we may share them with you. We are extremely proud of all our international colleagues who share these experiences and we will continue these conversations in the future in an effort to maintain an open dialogue and a safe, supportive atmosphere for all of our colleagues, clients and contractors.