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Working in Norway

How to Break My Language Barrier

Written by Karin Lee Published: Feb. 23 2016

Patience and Participation: The Keys to the Communication Castle? Over the course of a regular workday in the global workplace, several small and seemingly insignificant events may take place in the life of a foreign-born employee whose language is one other than that of the native population among which he/she works. This person has a …

Patience and Participation:
The Keys to the Communication Castle?

Over the course of a regular workday in the global workplace, several small and seemingly insignificant events may take place in the life of a foreign-born employee whose language is one other than that of the native population among which he/she works. This person has a steady job in the organization, one that requires a high level of education and skill – so that’s not the issue. Rather, it’s one of communication – perhaps they’re at that linguistic place where they’ve started learning the language of their new host country to the point where they can hold a short conversation with a native about a neutral topic appropriate for small talk, say the weather. This is just the opening round of what will be a number of verbal interactions by the time they head out the door at the end of the day. It’s now early morning at the office coffee machine: what is really going on in the mind of this newcomer as they’re standing there trying to make themselves understood? Growing up an English speaker in the US and having lived in southern Norway for over twenty years, I answer this question by first talking about the following when teaching courses to other foreigners on how to adapt to living here:

When moving to Norway, you approached learning the country’s language with the same determination you’d shown earlier in life getting through school and other new situations in your own country, with a combination of self-confidence and determination to succeed. You figured that it would take a lot of effort on your part but that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. What you didn’t think of is that daily conversation among native speakers goes a lot faster than it does in any textbook or recording, almost to the point where you could throw what you’ve learned in your evening class out the window. You didn’t know what it would feel like to sit among a group of these speakers either at work or in a social situation while they’re talking away and you’re just not able to participate. (I’ve had people tell me that while they were sitting in a group – for example, at lunch in the company cafeteria – trying to mentally construct a sentence in order to join the conversation, by the time they’d done so the other people were three subjects ahead of them. Sigh.) You didn’t know what it would feel like to be the quiet one in a group, as at home you were the chatterbox who was always at the center of whatever was being discussed. You also didn’t know what it would be like to have to repeat yourself so often, as others nearly always don’t understand what you’re attempting to say on the first try. Or the second. Or, quite sadly, the third. You have a well-developed vocabulary in your own language and have taken for granted your ability to express yourself descriptively and accurately in most settings. By contrast, you now have a limited choice of words and phrases to define the points you want to get across. The more anxiety-causing bigger picture, at least at work, might be that you’re worried that native speakers think you’re not intelligent and capable of performing the job for which you’ve been hired. They dismiss you in a way. After all, how does one inspire trust and respect in others when one has switched over to their language and is suddenly feeling their outsider status in a most verbal and obvious way?

That’s the ‘downer’ side of things during my talk, after which it’s time to head onwards and upwards or risk losing one’s linguistic nerve completely. I tell my listeners to stop and take a breath before giving in to despair. They should be proud of themselves for doing what they’re doing – a lot of natives in any given country wouldn’t be emotionally capable of moving to a foreign country and settling there forever and ever, thereby requiring that they learn a completely new language. And yet here my audience members are, learning to utter strange noises that when properly pronounced actually make sense to their listeners. I then tell them ‘never wait to start a conversation’, especially in a one-on-one situation. Do your best with a smile, and the person opposite you can’t help but give you a positive (if often, let’s face it, questioning) response. In group situations, know inside you that you’re a smart person who just needs to listen for awhile – okay, sometimes for a long while. As we say, ‘listen and learn’, and in time you’ll be linguistically able to join in as well. Patience, young grasshopper.

Equally encouraging, a native speaker somebody recently told me that they thought I was good at mingling and making small talk, and they wondered if it were a cultural thing in that Americans are stereotypically known for being outgoing and friendly. I thought a moment before answering, and replied that actually it was a habit born out of necessity – that is, I’d seen a long time ago the need for me to take the initiative and start conversations with those around me – both at work and otherwise – if I was to make any kind of progress at all. Progress in the social sense (making new acquaintances) and progress in the linguistic sense (improving my Norwegian skills); they seem to go hand and hand and are equally important to my wellbeing. Does this ever get old, and do I ever get tired of feeling like I have to be a conversational shark, always moving ahead or dying? Of course, but the rewards of being an extrovert almost wherever I go far exceed my occasionally giving in to self-pity when believing I’m the only one on the planet who’s had to make this level of continual effort in order to experience a good working day in my adopted country. I encourage my listeners to follow my example, assuring them that they will also be rewarded by doing so – perhaps the very next morning at work at the coffee machine…

Finally, I tell them that at the end of the day in the global workplace, they should never stop trying to communicate in any way they can to get the message across that they are an open, smart, enthusiastic part of the local scene who wants to connect with the other people there. While having a (temporarily) limited vocabulary is certainly a challenge to doing this, it’s not an excuse to give up before trying – and trying again – to communicate their way into becoming conversational partners for the native speakers with whom they interact on a daily basis. It’s a self-help language approach that over time will work for anyone willing to participate and be patient, guaranteed.

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designed to improve your professional skills.

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