May 25, 2022

Working in a second language

There’s no doubt that it’s an English-speaking world; English is the official business language in most countries and an estimated 1.75 billion people worldwide speak English at “a useful level”. But for the vast majority of them, English is their second language. In fact, only 360 million people speak English as a first language. That equates to a huge number of people who work in a second language.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in South Africa, with our 11 official languages. At Content Lab, we have many team members for whom English is a second language. Some are Afrikaans, some Xhosa, some Venda, some Shona (to name just a few), but they all speak and work in English.

So does working in a second language make the work more difficult? Experts say yes… and no.

There’s the obvious – having to think a little harder to make sense of what is being said, to decipher cryptic emails or keep up with a fast-paced conversation in a meeting. Perhaps your vocabulary is not as big as a first-language English speaker and you have to google words a little more frequently. And maybe working in a second language means having to very quickly translate something into your home language in your mind, and then translate it back into English, in order to understand. This all equates to having to work a little harder than native English speakers. Then there is also the risk of being misunderstood, or saying the wrong thing because you have your words muddled up.

Of course in the world of dubbing, it becomes even more interesting. Now, you have someone whose home language is Xhosa, working in an English environment, dubbing a movie from Spanish to Afrikaans! I would say they definitely need to work harder than most…

But there is a silver lining. Firstly, the amazing team we have at Content Lab is made up of people who are naturally good at language – they wouldn’t have chosen this industry if they weren’t. Secondly, research has recently shown that people who can speak a foreign language are likely to be more analytical and make fewer mistakes. This is because it’s their natural tendency to concentrate harder and make sure of every single word. People who work in a language other than their first language are also more likely to be open and accepting of other cultures, connect more easily and learn cultural differences more readily – a real plus in our industry. Studies have also shown that decisions made in a second language are more reason-driven than those made in a native language. And finally, it has been proven that those who are fluent in two languages will find it much easier to learn a third – or fourth – language!

All in all, it seems there are more pros to working in a second language than cons.

What do you think?

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