So this week we have had a junior school French exchange student here, staying with us as part of a fabulous school initiative, only the problem is that I don’t really speak much French and the 10 year old girl, G does not speak much German yet either, or English. Both of the children have only been learning German and French respectively since late summer last year. Talk about ‘in at the deep end!”.



So what do you do? Well, out of desperation to make this lovely little girl welcome and happy in your country and home, you do just about anything to make yourself understood don’t you? Thankfully, with ipads and smart phones online dictionaries have truly been a life saver this week. We’ve also been drawing illustrations, pictures, process diagrams, clocks and much more to get our message across. Frustratingly my drawing isn’t much better than my French but amazingly we have made ourselves understood.

We struggled, searched, guessed, dispaired, acted out scenes, made wild gestures with our hands and feet, we basically used every trick in the book to make ourselves understood but most importantly we laughed, principally at ourselves but also at each other. My observation as a professional trainer in three countries and a range of industries and companies, is that those who can laugh at their own mistakes and basically don’t take themselves too seriously tend to be better language learners. Why? Because you need to make mistakes before you can learn from them.

That is probably one of the reasons why I love working with tech teams, because they are not only totally independent learners who are in their element, trying to work things out to find a solution but also there is another thing that makes all the difference. It’s the banter in the basement, which brings some character and quirkiness into the tech teams, which is actually a great thing because if you are used to some sarcasm, swearing and finger pointing, you can take some critisism and that – believe you me – makes learning a language so much easier.

What I discovered was missing this week was a cheat sheet! Here’s me shouting from the rooftops to my language learners about the importance of getting basic structures into place and the importance of reading and words, but I had nothing of the sort ready for this overseas visitor. Hardly a good role model am I?

Fortunately, as the week progressed my French has improved. My son has started to try out his words and phrases and we are getting the odd “Danke” in the most irresistible French accent known to mankind and this evening already she flies back. That’s right, just as it is beginning to come together, the week is drawing to a close and I wish that I had hit the ground running rather than stumbling through the week on linguistic crutches. I’m cross with myself for not having prepared!

So what is the lesson here? Well if you are travelling on business or networking in English, then as tempting as it might be after a full day of information overload, to let your colleagues do the talking, you are missing out on an opportunity, in fact you are handing the opportunity to your career competitors on a plate.

So make the time to put together some questions and statements before you go anywhere and practice them, out loud ideally, to make them seem more natural, the cat won’t mind being spoken to in English, in fact cats being cats, you might be ignored all together, but hearing the words in your head makes all the difference.

Put together the 10 questions that you would like to ask people. What do you want to know? What gems of information do you want to go back to the office with? Which products are you interested in? Which type of projects are similar to your own work? Which services would simplify your work life? Got them written down?

Right now you have to be prepared to answer those questions and more about your responsibilities, preferences and plans in English. Once you are done, ask yourself, hand on heart,  if you would feel comfortable having that conversation with your boss standing right next to you.

If the thought makes you want to run for the hills, you stay right there because that is a sure sign that it is time to take action. Choose a learning strategy that is flexible and be realistic, you have enough on your plate so although getting your language skills up to scratch is certainly a good investment, you want to make sure that the approach you choose is a rewarding and useful use of your time and energy. Learn in a way that is achievable, life’s too short to be beating ourselves up about stuff. Insist on 100% relevance and do something about your language gaps today.

If you need results fast then think seriously about a personal language trainer, make sure that you get an invoice so that you can set it off against your taxes and make sure that they are coming to you to keep your travel time down or that you are meeting in a place that you feel relaxed and comfortable enough to talk freely. The more you can tell them about your job, challenges, communication requirements and goals, the more they can help you so get them on your wavelength and treat it like a client or management appointment so that you keep to your schedule. Read like a wild thing in English too, in fact do anything and everything to expose yourself to English, even if it is just for 30 days, you would be amazed at the difference in even such a short amount of time, ask any manager going overseas for a new job!

So if you are experiencing practice paralysis, ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen? So what if you make a mistake, so what if you pronounce something wrong? So what if they have to ask you to repeat yourself? So what if you find it difficult to understand their accent?

What you DO need to ask yourself is “What will they think about me if I don’t say anything? What will they think if I don’t engage in the conversation about my project, even though I have the most knowledge and experience? What will they think if I make excuses not to communicate? What will they think about me as a manager if I don’t represent my organisation, argue my point, protect my team’s workload or stand up to my client, supplier or unions in a polite but firm way that is diplomatic, yet determined?

Wouldn’t it be great if you started with a worksheet and in 30 days time, had the knowledge but also the confidence and speaking experience to tackle just about any career based situation in English?

Listen to this blog post on the go.

Listen to this blog post on the go.