My personal journey with languages
At the age of 5, my family (Spanish) moved to France and I was “parachuted” (it definitely felt that way) into a French public school. No one spoke my language. I learned French in 3 months and (informally) changed my name to “Véronique” to blend in.
At the age of 11, we moved again, to Brazil. Sometimes I would know the answer in class but I wouldn’t speak out because I was embarrassed of speaking Portuguese with a Spanish accent.
At the age of 15, we moved again to the Netherlands and I joined an International English School. I didn’t speak English back then. My first biology exam, 2 months later was in English. While the other kids were focusing on writing their answers, I was concentrating on understanding the questions. I failed with a 4.5 (5 being the minimum score).
I spent my entire childhood learning languages to catch up with the other kids and blend in.
The language barrier
As an adult, I have consciously made an effort to learn the languages of the countries I have lived in (Italy and Greater China (Taiwan, Shanghai, Hong Kong) because I wanted to belong and be understood, but especially because I wanted to understand others.
In my last corporate job, I had the privilege of leading an amazing multi-cultural team of managers spread out across 12 countries in Asia Pacific. In our regional group meetings, more often than not, the non-English native speakers would keep quiet and refrain from participating. They were probably as intimidated as I was at 15, going into my biology exam in a foreign language . I would often seek their input in private before or after the meeting and they had so much to say!
Managing a multi-lingual Team
If you manage a multi-lingual team, you have a gold-mine! You just have to dig a little deeper to find the gold and create a linguistically inclusive environment. Based on my personal work and life experience here are some tips:
Set the tone for a safe environment where everyone is encouraged to participate without worrying about language.
Check-in privately one on one with the participants before or after the team meeting to get their input and feedback.
Be aware of your own positive and possibly unconscious bias towards the native speakers.
Leverage story-telling to reinforce the inclusion of all languages and participation (I often shared my own).
Provide support to help improve language skills (encourage to join courses, accommodate work hours accordingly. etc).
Never ever allow making fun or mocking accents or linguistic mistakes in front of a group (believe me, it hurts).
Single out individuals to speak up in public if they don’t volunteer.
Assume the most vocal voices represent the majority. They don’t.
Bonus point: learn a new language.