English as Second Language Colleagues

Recently I was appalled to hear that my friend, who is a software engineer, was denied an internal transfer because his potential manager did not want a non-native English speaker on his team. As a native Korean speaker myself, it was unsettling to hear such a story. I thought that in this day and age, especially at Silicon Valley, we have figured out how to work together with those from different backgrounds.

I realize I don’t see many conversations around how this lack of fluency impacts some of us. I suspect that’s because most writers and speakers are already fluent in their languages. So we don’t talk about this issue and put the onus on the individuals.

We can’t expect people who spent most of their lives in different languages to understand all connotations and cultural subtext. It is not going to happen no matter how hard they try. Even some native speakers have a hard time communicating well. If we believe that communication is a two-way street, we have to meet in the middle.

Yes, I get that it makes communication more difficult. But we, collectively speaking, hired each of us because everyone was deemed qualified to do the job. Then, it is on all of us to create an environment where we all can be successful.

How? I admit I don’t have a great idea. But I will start by setting up 1:1s to build the relationship and the context. That will provide a sometimes necessary bridge for the lapses. If I notice how well or badly we communicate, I will share that too. And I will always try to remember that none of us is perfect. Language proficiency, or the lack thereof, is just another imperfection some of us have.

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