Putanga – Life on the Road

Stories from my journeys around the world…

English 0.1 Build 001

Posted by Monica Johansen on March 25, 2009

I have read somewhere that more than 90 % of all face-to-face communication consists of body language. In other words, body language is known to be the most important factor in daily human communication. However, I would like to dispute this statement with regards to technical discussions in a work environment, because I strongly believe that when I am trying to explain a technical constraint for a customer, the way the customer will interpret the message is much more related to the words I am using and how I construct the sentences than to my facial expression and how my arms are placed.

A well deserved mango parfait

A well deserved mango parfait

For instance, how would you explain a complicated technical procedure and the consequences of not following that procedure without using words? This is something I am facing at the moment when working in Hanoi in an environment where people hardly understand English. In order to make myself understood I have to use a combination of sketches and simplified English, and by simplified English I mean that I have to reduce my sentences to a bare minimum where I remove all inflections, conjugations and little help words that you normally would include in sentences. Every single sentence has to be evaluated in order to avoid confusion, and I have to speak very slowly so that the customer will pick up every single word I am saying.

But that is only one part of the problem. In the other end you have me not understanding the customer because the English they are trying to speak is so poorly pronounced that I simply have no idea what they mean. Sometimes I have to ask them to write the words down on paper in the hope that I will understand them if the spelling is not too far from correct. And when I finally understand which words they are trying to use I have no clue how they managed to pronounce it so completely different from the way it is written. It is quite amazing actually, and it explains why some languages are very difficult to learn unless you are brought up with it.

Naturally, these issues result in some very interesting situations where I for instance can ask the customer a question which is NOT a yes or no question, and the customer will answer “yes”. Then I will repeat the question in a different way in a desperate attempt to make myself understood, and the customer will reply “no”. And all I can do is to give it yet another attempt and make the sentences even more simplified, in English version 0.1.001, combined with some squiggling on a piece of paper, and hope that the message this time will not be lost in translation.

The language barriers do not only affect the quality of the work, but it also makes it very difficult to have friendly and people connecting conversations about everyday stuff. These everyday conversations will often strengthen the relationship to the customer, and it simply makes it more enjoyable to be in the office when you can get to know the people you are working with on a more personal and non-formal level. Besides, it is a very uncomfortable feeling when you are sitting on a restaurant with your colleagues during lunch as the only foreigner, and you are not able to understand a single word people are saying. It certainly doesn’t make you feel very welcome.

Well, at least the hotel is nice and the food is great. I have allowed myself a mango parfait after dinner ever day since I really think I deserve it after a long and frustrating working day. I desperately need to speak to some native English speaking people again before I go nuts!


One Response to “English 0.1 Build 001”

  1. tomi said

    Hehehe i’m glad you don’t put this article under my country categories :p

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