Why working in a second language is now the default in today’s global remote work landscape
Native French speaker Morad Salehi recalls a moment at work when his feedback on some new ideas caused his colleagues to be concerned for his health and well-being. Bewildered at first, he eventually realized what had happened — instead of saying “pass on,” he said he would “pass out.”
A proficient English speaker who also speaks Spanish and Arabic, Salehi has worked fully in his second language for the past two years, after joining fully-remote PR agency Tyto as an associate director from his Paris base during the height of the pandemic.
He’s embraced his new way of working and the different perspectives his 50 colleagues bring from countries like the U.K., Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, but admitted the experience has required some extra effort on his part. For example, when he first joined, he would write notes before a meeting and double check them via Google Translate to ensure he could share his input clearly.
“At the beginning, it is challenging in terms of trusting ourselves to transmit the right ideas and make sure we’re really saying what we mean,” said Salehi.
Navigating colloquialisms, as well as different accents and tones is now all in a day’s work for the numerous people like Salehi who are working in English for the first time because of remote work.
Online language learning platform Preply’s 2021 end of year report highlighted that 49% of its users are learning English for career reasons, followed by French (25.5%) and Spanish (20.8%). Further Preply data showed over 26% of those learning a new language online are doing so due to relocating to a new area. In fact, 10% of those learning French, 7.8% of those learning Spanish and 5.5% of students learning English with Preply are motivated by relocation. Preply surveyed its hundreds of thousands of learners in 180 countries.
Meanwhile, fellow language platform Babbel claimed its business platform has been used by over 1,000 companies in Europe since it launched in 2017. Its top three use cases reported by customers are internal communication gaps amongst teams, working with new international clients and suppliers, as well as language learning as an employee benefit.
Bridging communication gaps is front of mind for Gabriella Parker, head of people and culture at Leaf, an e-commerce performance marketing company. While Leaf is headquartered in Newcastle, in the north of England, the company is fully remote, and 74% of its 57 staff are working in English as a second language. There are nine different native languages across the team: English, Spanish, Arabic, Punjabi, Greek, Indonesian, Hindi, Serbian and Portuguese.
Given Leaf’s founders are Costa Rican, perhaps the company was destined to have a multilingual environment, but Parker doesn’t leave this to chance, running communications training on both sides. For example, helping non-native English speakers understand different accents, and working with English speakers to be more precise in how they use English.
“Speaking up in meetings or challenging someone more senior than you is hard for everyone. In your second language it’s even harder and part of our communications training was based on building confidence and framing what you want to say in English,” said Parker.
The company also encourages team members to pause a meeting to check something on Google Translate if somebody isn’t sure of a particular word or phrase. Wherever possible, they prioritize written and asynchronous communications, and opt for silent meetings, where the first 10 minutes is spent digesting the material to be discussed.
Those practices reflect Salehi’s experience at Tyto, which also runs a Slack channel where non-native English speakers can ask their colleagues quick translation questions. Team members are also encouraged to host sessions showcasing their home language and culture, and explain this in the context of the media landscape they’re operating in.
Online marketing platform Semrush offers language learning as an employee benefit to support its 1,000+ employees spread across the U.S., the Netherlands, Spain, Serbia, Germany, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Poland and Armenia. They’re a blend of in-office, hybrid and remote, with many working fully remotely even before the pandemic.
Semrush has leveraged remote working to hire and retain the best talent, like Chiara Clemente. She’s a native Italian who has begun a new role as marketing lead for Italy, but is based in Barcelona, Spain, where she relocated five months ago to be close to the company’s newest office.
Clemente works predominantly in English and Italian, but twice a week when she visits the office to interact with her 70 colleagues on the ground she speaks Spanish, so having the company pay for language lessons is highly beneficial. Once she’s more competent in Spanish, Clemente plans to learn Catalan, the official language of Catalonia, the region which Barcelona is capital of.
Frequently shifting between multiple languages is tiring, but Clemente feels she’ll have an advantage over candidates who speak just one language, as more companies take advantage of remote work to hire more international talent.
“Knowing more languages always opens up more opportunities. And in terms of your worth, I think that’s always a plus. I’m learning Spanish, which is one of the most spoken languages in the world. I also speak Russian, which is very hard to learn. So I think that’s a pretty good language portfolio,” said Clemente.