Learning foreign languages can make your job easier

Don’t build walls, by ignoring foreign languages, says Contributing Editor Dirk Willard, in this month's Field Notes column. Learning foreign languages can make your job easier.

By Dirk Willard, contributing editor

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Early in Ben Horwitz’s book “Portrait of a Chemical Engineer”, he relayed a morbid fear of language that I can completely understand. I scrapped by Spanish in high school by memorizing for the exam. I thought so little of the subject that I ignored it for months and prepared for the exam the night before. So, like him, when I found out that a chemistry degree required a year of German, I became more attracted to chemical engineering than biochemistry. Perhaps it was the way languages were taught. When I learned Spanish in high school we started by comparing Latin and English sentence structure. This was a big mistake!

I must admit, even today, I don’t know English grammar the way I know algebra or calculus. Ask me to conjugate a verb and you’ll get a puzzled look. Had it not been for Mrs. Jezisek’s stubbornness in senior composition, I probably wouldn’t be able to write at all.

Like many experienced teachers, she’d learned that the best way to teach something was to get down to its practical roots. A student will learn if shown how something works; this is especially true of engineers. However, it’s one thing to learn a language and quite another to learn grammar and a language.

Fortunately, language education has advanced since my high school days. Now, there’s the Primleur method started by a professor at Stanford. Using this method, a student is taught by hearing sounds and learning how to speak a language long before learning how to write it. In his studies Primleur found that the speech center in the brain differs from the one that reads and understands grammar. Gee, there’s a surprise!

When I first starting working at sites overseas, I relied on Berlitz. I taught myself to read a little French but my speech was poor. On a later trip to France, I exclusively used the Primleur method. I managed to get past basic introductions and my pronunciations were fairly good.

American companies would be smart to push the importance of language skills. After all, you should be as prepared in communicating your ideas as you are polished technically. Yet in the 30 years I’ve been reading technical journals, I’ve only seen one article that even pointed out that customs can differ overseas, let alone language. I’ve been impressed by the tolerance shown to Americans when we travel. A Dutch engineer knows at least German, French, English and his own language. When an American engineer arrives overseas he automatically expects everyone to speak English. This frame of mind puts an American company in a poor position. The engineer builds a wall between himself and his client and, more importantly, opens himself up to financial risk because of misunderstandings.

Recently, I found an interesting resource about the connection between business success and fluency with languages. One of the pull quotes caught my attention: Only 6% of the world population speaks English as their native language; 75% speak no English at all. A graph supported the sobering conclusion that countries that don’t speak English sell more products in the U.K. than their U.K.-based rivals.

A language barrier can put you in tight situations. The further you go away from tourist cities the harder it will be to find anyone who speaks English — and chemical plants seldom are built anywhere you’d want to visit. Several years ago I was on a trip in rural France. At a train station I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English; luckily I knew enough French to order a ticket so I could get to the plant. Other engineers are less challenged by languages.

I was just going to sleep after the nightshift when I heard a voice outside my door. It was familiar, with a telltale English Midlands accent. But it was speaking grammar school French. It turned out that my friend John Brockwell was checking into a room down the hall. Later, I told John, who was in from the States for some electrical check-outs, that his French was perfect — but, then, so was his German and his Japanese. I also mentioned to him that I found my Berlitz book very helpful with French. “Oh,” he remarked nonchalantly, “the people who described ‘my aunt’s car is broken down’ as ‘my grandfather’s chariot is on fire.’” Such is the low opinion many engineers around the world have of the language skills of American engineers. For us to stay competitive, this must change.

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