Working in a foreign language

I find working in a foreign language to be a chicken and egg situation: If your professional German (for example) isn’t sufficient, then you won’t get a job where you need to use German, but if you don’t have a job where you need to use German then you won’t be able to improve your professional German skills. Hmm…

How good do your German skills need to be?

Levels B1 and B2 seem to be a ‘good’ level of German. B1 is a must for German citizenship, so that must count for something. But I’m not convinced that a certificate is enough – or even necessary. Job advertisements mostly require ‘knowledge of German’ or ‘fluency in German’, and after a lot of clicking around, I didn’t see one job ad that specifically asked for a langauge certificate.

Despite having a languages degree when I arrived in Frankfurt, I still scribbled down random words that I didn’t understand in meetings so that I could translate them after. And when reading German emails, I wasn’t just reading the email itself, but also trying to learn the typical professional phrases that people would use. Learning from a book just isn’t the same.

How do you get into a German work environment without fluent German?

I would recommend applying to bilingual work environments. This would likely mean that English is the working language, but you’ll have contact with German colleagues and clients. Take every opportunity to use German – even if you’re nervous to begin with. No joke, I once just stared at the phone for a few seconds before answering because I was so nervous to have a call in German. Could I have just done it in English? Yes. But I knew the client felt most comfortable speaking German, and if not now then when?

Trust in the workplace

In addition to the hard skills, whether it be a certificate or an interview in German (scary, I know!), in my opinion, what we actually need to improve our foreign langugae skills at work is two-fold trust:

1) Trust from your employer and colleugues

I’d say that learning by doing is the most practical way to get to grips with using a foreign language professionally. A balance of language skills and cultural understanding allow an international team to thrive in a multilingual work environment, and with this often comes trust that colleagues will be happy to proofread an email or make a vocab suggestion for next time.

I have been fortunate to work in bilingual teams where people have respected my passion to become proficient in professional German, and have therefore been happy to support me. And of course, it’s always beneficial that I can proofread their English texts too – the trust goes both ways.

2) Trust from yourself

If you don’t trust yourself to try in the first place, then how will you ever improve? I am a shameless German learner: I’ve had sticky notes with German vocab on my desk, and I have saved in my favourites. I’ve asked colleagues if I can observe their German sales pitches and presentations, and if I am unsure of a word, then I am comfortable saying just that – people are very understanding. If you trust yourself to learn professional German, then others will trust you too.

Be mindful

It’s important that both employers and employees are mindful that people are not necessarily working in their native language. So be patient – a grammatical mistake isn’t the end of the world and is certainly not a reflection of someone’s proficiency in their role.

For those of us who strive to break language barriers at work: Learn with confidence, make mistakes with confidence, and know that every try is a step closer to using a foreign language with confidence at work. And trust me, I went from staring at the phone with nerves, to having full on job interviews in German. It’s possible!

One thought on “Working in a foreign language

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  1. You can also try to jump right in.
    I had an Italian colleague once and when she moved here she started working in a call centre without really speaking the language. That way she learned very fast. 🙂


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