Learning a Second-Language at Work

Here at Quipper our product team is composed of people from several different countries that speak different languages so the only common language ends up being English. @chaspy mentioned this briefly in his article but I wanted to expand more on it. As an education company a lot of people want to learn a different language, most notably in the Japanese office many people have expressed interest in learning English. I myself am learning Japanese. I wanted to talk a little bit about Quipper’s environment in terms of learning a different languages, some pieces of advice for learning a second language through work and how companies can promote learning a language at work and make it an integral part of their work environment.

First of all learning a language is hard

Like really, really…really hard. Maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It takes a lot of time, sacrifice, commitment and dedication to learn a new language, especially when you are going from languages that are very dissimilar such as Japanese to English or English to Japanese. It’s even harder when you only have time to learn outside of work since learning a language takes a lot of time and since work takes a big chunk out of your day you end up with less time to learn a language.

I am very thankful a place like Quipper has adopted a number of policies that facilitate language learning so that it becomes part of the job. Here are some of the ways we make learning a language possible at our company.

Provide daily and defined opportunities to constantly use a different language

One thing I have noticed myself when speaking to people is that even though I want to learn Japanese, if everyone I talk to understands English, I will just speak English because it so much easier and more convenient. Unfortunately, this won’t make you any better at the language but sometimes I can’t help it because it’s just so much simpler. One way to solve this issue is by providing boundaries that force people to use English or Japanese in certain situations even if everyone in the channel understands the other language. For example we do this at Quipper in some of the following ways:

  • We write all of our code and code comments in English
  • Whenever we submit code (create a PR) and discuss it on Github all conversation and comments are written in English
  • We have slack channels that specify English or Japanese only, so in these channels you are only supposed to speak English or Japanese depending on the name

The benefits of this is that it gives people a chance to use English everyday, even if it for something small (small numbers lead to big improvements over time). It is all in writing so people can think about how to write something before they write it and more than that It also usually doesn’t require writing huge paragraphs so it’s something that can be done without using a lot of extra time.

Trial By Fire

In English we have a term “Trial By Fire”. This term is used when someone is unsure whether or not they can do something but then is put into a situation where they have no choice but to do it to the best of their ability. Let’s say for example you wanted to learn how to play baseball but had never played before. It would be a “trial by fire” if instead of learning how to field, throw, swing a bat or run the bases you simply went to a baseball game and simply just started trying to play. You will probably be really bad and fail a lot but you would also learn a lot at a really fast pace. For learning Japanese this is probably my favorite way of learning.

Here are a couple things I’ve done at Quipper that follows this ideal:

English and Japanese Day

This is something I created on one of my teams. I wanted to learn Japanese and some other people on the team wanted to learn English.

What we decided to do was have “English Days” and “Japanese Days”. On English Days I would only speak English to my team and my team was only allowed to speak or write in English to me. On the Japanese days it was the opposite and everyone had to speak Japanese to me and I could only communicate in Japanese. The point of this is that it would force people to speak in a different language, even if they were tired, didn’t want to, or didn’t understand. This was a “Trial by Fire” because no one was really sure if their language abilities were good enough to speak to me about complex matters in either Japanese or English but since the rule was the rule we had no choice but to do our best.

Monday and Wednesday were Japanese Days and Tuesday and Thursday were English Days. Friday was a free day and you could speak in whatever language you wanted.

This is really hard. Our team had a daily meeting everyday where everyone would share their progress and help they needed so we did all those meetings in either English or Japanese and we would even have longer more in depth discussions about specs or technical decisions in one language or the other. Sometimes conversations would take longer than normal because people would have to speak slower, or things would need to be repeated a few times before everyone understood. However, usually this was really fun and it helped people learn and gives people confidence they can communicate in another language.

Do Presentations in English/Japanese

A few months ago the members on my team had to make a short presentation on the new features we had built over the course of a few months. Each engineer had to present the portions they worked on, how the functionality worked etc. Now instead of simply doing my part of the presentation in English, I elected to do my portion of the presentation in Japanese. I had never done a presentation in Japanese before, especially not in a professional setting and I was really nervous about it. However, these kinds of situations are the best kinds of situations to really push your understanding and confidence with a new language. Additionally, some of my other Japanese coworkers agreed to do their parts of the presentation in English instead of Japanese as well which was very impressive and I think very helpful for them too.

Provide Language Support

Companies can help people learn languages on the job by actively showing support and commitment to helping them learn. Not only does this encourage people to learn a second language but it also shows the commitment of the company their employees personal, individual development. It also gives employees more confidence that learning English or a second language is something that is valuable to the company and that learning a language is still a productive use of your time.

At Quipper all employees receive a monthly stipend which can be used by people wishing and actively trying to learn a second-language.

Provide an Environment Which Supports Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Learning

Last but not least, it's important that companies provide an environment where people are free to try new things and make mistakes. When employing some of the language-learning tactics I mentioned above there will be a lot of mistakes made. Some things might take a little longer to write or communicate. Sometimes there may even be some kind of miscommunication. But as long as everyone is understanding, patient and trying to help each other out, learning a language at work is something that can be both doable and fun!