Career success is learning new languages

My daughter, Mia Athena, is a half-Greek, half-Korean 2.5 year old. My husband and I both have parents who grew up in Greece/Korea and learned English as a second language, but our parents only taught us to speak English for fear that learning another language would negatively impact our ability to speak English well. (Today everyone knows that’s not true, but we didn’t have much knowledge or experience on this topic in the 1960s and 1970s!) In any case, I’m amazed at how easily Mia can pick up new languages. She spends a few days with my parents and she starts saying Korean phrases with a good Korean accent. We are now in Greece for a family vacation and she is picking up Greek phrases, with a good Greek accent (according to the Greeks).

I was giving a talk to a women’s group at Cisco on how to have a successful agile career. I spoke about my major “career pivots” and what I had to learn in each. One of the most important things was that with each major pivot into a new organization I had to learn the culture and language of the new organization. Specifically, I moved from growing up in Batavia, New York to MIT to HP Labs to the HP PC business to the Cisco Collaboration business to the overall Cisco business. Each of these moves brought me to a new group of people who spoke a different language, not only in technology area, but more importantly in communication and work style.

Speaking to researchers in research labs and universities is very different from speaking to people who run fast-paced billion dollar business. Speaking to designers and developers is different from speaking to people in operations and sales. We even speak different languages in my small DevNet team today. When I first moved from the research lab to the PC business, I actually got feedback that the way I talked made people who ran the business feel like farmers. I was shocked. I grew up in a small town and was raised in a way to never feel superior to anyone and I actually felt like I was the newbie who had to learn about the business, yet people were getting a different impression from the way I spoke. I realized that I had to learn to speak a different language. People didn’t care about the types of things I was explaining, instead they wanted to hear the results and the pieces of the story they needed to do their jobs. I had to adapt what I chose to talk about and how to say it.

The patience and interest people have in talking about various topics differs widely, and if you linger on a topic that is not of interest to someone then you can be judged negatively. You need to learn about their goals and interests. You need to learn what what information they want and need to know. In a nutshell, you need to learn their language, their culture, and their communication style. Now that’s not to say that you should only speak about the same topics in the same language they speak, because you are there for a reason and you can add a new perspective because of your unique background and experience. But, you need to figure out how to talk about these topics in a way that is interesting and understandable by them.

When I look at my daughter, I see that she can pick up new languages quickly. She observes very different things than I do, and copies them. She certainly adds her own flavor and personality into a conversation, but she still adapts and fits in in an interesting way.

Somewhere along the way many of us lose the ability to observe and pick up new languages, yet it is exactly the skill we need to be successful in business and in our careers.

Some questions for you:

  • Have you had a career pivot where you needed to pick up a new language?
  • What observations did you have about the new organization or community?
  • What aspects of a new language or communication style did you have to learn?

8 Replies to “Career success is learning new languages”

  1. This is one of the biggest challenge I have been facing since I start my career.

    If I can explain: I have experienced the same when I move from a Silicon Valley security solution company where I was working in a multicultural environment surrounded by tecky and nerds to a London city stockbroking financial firm where I had to interact with aristocratic british multimillionaire stakeholders. While in the first company I felt confortable from the beginning, in the second one, It was very tough to translate my tecnical language into their business needs: I had to change completely my way to interact and my italian accent was not appreciated.
    Within this context, a big challenge was to explain, in a language understandable by them, why cyber security and network security solutions were needed and how to justify their costs.

    Now the best part: I have just moved from the UK to France where in September I will start a new role and speak French in a job environment for the first time! Surely as you wrote, I will face changing of working culture and communication style. As it already happened when I moved from Italy to Ireland and Holland where my English level was almost null. I am looking forward to discover how French work.

    I think learning more languages and live in different countries with different cultures will help to become open-minded and more easily to adapt to others who have different communication styles.

    This is why I hope my daughter is going to start to talk Italian, French and English soon. It will give her more opportunities of communication in every environment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Dario – Congrats on learning so many new languages! It must have been tough to move from speaking security tech to speaking finance with aristocratic british multimillionaire stakeholders. And congrats on moving between actual languages too- French- Wow!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have changed careers a couple of times and have also changed work places within my current career, teaching. I have found that watching people interact and talk without me adding anything to the conversation has been an integral part of learning about the culture and language of each situation. Once I feel comfortable, I don’t stop talking (lol). Knowing what to say, how to say it, and most importantly, to whom you say it is key in getting your message across. Kids are much more forgiving and much more receptive to this. I am taking classes now that will be changing (a little) how I speak to my kids in class. They are always willing to be part of my journey, even when my best laid plans fail. That is the biggest lesson–failing and figuring out how to change the message so that it comes across as clear and concise rather than condescending or confusing.

    Susie–love the blog!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Caroline – Teaching is such a great example where your language matters and where you can have big impact! It’s amazing how you can accidentally be interpreted as not only confusing, but condescending. Great point- Clear and concise has a different meaning with children than adults!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Susie, this is so concisely and well said. In a lot more long-winded fashion, I’ve been saying this for years, beginning by explaining why studying 6 languages and speaking 4 was the best career prep for high tech I could ever have had.
    There were some fascinating studies done in India about 30 years ago on brain organization that demonstrated that children who learn a second language before the age of 5 actually organize and store information differently, and much more efficiently. No doubt updated and elaborated since. It totally resonated for me.
    And btw, my Greek Stacy, tho the grandchild (not child) of immigrants nevertheless spoke no English before the age of 5, just as her parents before her…all born in Sioux Falls, SD. And all smart!


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