Language Learning for Executives

 

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I _really_ want this for my badge photo.

What if you became the leader of a team that spoke a different language from you? Maybe their native language was Spanish or Japanese or Arabic. Every day they spoke English at work, but on breaks they shifted to their mother tongue, without realizing it. Unfortunately, you can’t just drop in on a breakroom conversation, unless you’re going to force everyone back to English.

Would you learn their language? You know that high-performing teams require strong relationships. Learning their language would reduce miscommunication and build trust, right?

I experienced the benefits of learning a language for work. In 2010 I flew to Brazil to have the local accounting team explain Brazil’s complicated import tax scheme. Millions of dollars were involved, and all our questions had put the team on edge. To break the ice, I started the meeting with a few greetings in Portuguese. Soon we had moved from an adversarial relationship to teamwork. Knowing the Portuguese words for accounting terms like accruals, releases, and balance sheets sped up the discussion even further.

(Disclaimer: I work at a global tech company. All views expressed here are mine alone and do not represent the views of my employer.)

But wait. How can you learn a language when you already put in 50- or 60-hour work weeks? And where would you start? Rosetta Stone? Listen to podcasts during your commute? Sleep on a language book? (Stick the spike from The Matrix into your head? Still gives me the shivers!)

Just practice these simple conjugation rules involving lots of squiggly lines.

Just practice these simple conjugation rules involving lots of squiggly lines.

I will show you how your leadership role makes it easier to learn a language, not harder. We’ll use Spanish as an example. Here’s the plan.

  1. Set High Stakes
  2. Be selective
  3. Have fun
  4. Enlist your team

Oh, and you only have three months.

Set High Stakes

This means you plan an event. Where you speak. In Spanish.

That’s right, set the stakes high up front. You’re going to be on stage in front of 20, 50, 100 people and you’re going to speak Spanish. And you’re going to do it three months from now.

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Serving beer wouldn’t hurt either…

This technique is extremely powerful. Having a public, visible commitment raises this to the top of your daily priorities. But only for three months. After that you can put it in maintenance mode. Meanwhile, speeches are already your strong suit. You’re comfortable on stage. Just this time your speech will be in Spanish.

Oh, you won’t give the whole thing in Spanish. Pick one topic. Five to ten minutes is plenty.

Some ideas:

  • Your goals for the year or quarter
  • Current business challenges
  • Rewards and recognition

It can be any topic you would normally present. That’s best, because you already know what you want to say. And it’s something you’re passionate about. You can even use technical terms, because they’re typically close to English, if not outright borrowed. (You can even say the English term with a Spanish accent and be right half the time.)

Remember, you’re not going for perfection. You’re going for communication. Truth is, we all make misstakes in English. Don’t draw attention to your mistakes and most of the audience won’t even notice.

Be Selective

This is how you make this challenge manageable. Only learn the words you’re going to use. You need the vocabulary for two things: your five minute speech, and small talk before and after.

The latter is already something you love about your role – connecting with people. You didn’t get where you are today without knowing how to work a room. So you’re going to learn enough Spanish to ask someone a few questions: what’s their name, where are they from, how long have they worked there, what do they do for fun, do they have a family. You spend a couple of minutes on each person and then you move to the next one.

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Oh, you’re a dancer?

By the way, after only four weeks I could chat for two minutes in German. When they found out how little time it took, they were blown away. That’s the power of being selective and speaking with confidence.

Think of it as finding the 20 phrases you need in order to handle 80% of the situations you’re going to encounter. It’s the 80-20 Pareto rule applied to your language.

Have Fun

A genuine smile and a gleam in your eye is the best way to project confidence. And competence. So have fun with this.

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Who’s up for some fun!

Learn your favorite phrases in Spanish. You already have catchphrases you use all the time. If you don’t know what they are, ask your admin or your staff. They’ll be able to tell you. (They’ve been playing buzzword bingo ever since you arrived.)

Making it fun means you’ll stick with it. You did well at things like sports or music because you make them fun. Same with language learning. In fact, learning a language is just like practicing a sport or a musical instrument. You repeat the same motions/phrases until they become automatic.

Here’s some examples of phrases you probably already use: (no judgment)

  • Drink our own champagne
  • There’s no victims
  • This is not my first rodeo
  • How does this benefit the customer?
  • We’re going to disrupt
  • Let’s be long-term focused, not short-term greedy

This also a good time to focus on generic conversation connectors, such as:

  • I totally agree
  • Really?
  • Therefore
  • Tell me more
  • Maybe
  • What makes you say that?

These are words that keep the conversation flowing when you run out of Spanish phrases. They’re low-effort and high-frequency. And they add polish to your speaking.

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I mean, you are the boss, right?

Enlist your team

The other thing you have going for you is your team. Because really, any goal you set for yourself is a goal they’re going to have to help with. Especially your admin.

Schedule short one-on-ones with team members who speak Spanish (15-30 min). Plan one every day of the week. A good byproduct is that you’ll be investing in their career development. Pick a mix of high-performers and under-represented groups (females, minorities, etc.)

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Let the language learning begin!

These individuals will be your personal language tutors. This is exactly what I do on Skype every day. Their responsibilities are to teach you the greetings, help you write your speech in Spanish – including your catchphrases, and listen while you practice daily until your mouth muscles stop rebelling.

Second, schedule short daily vocabulary reviews with your admin. Did I mention that she or he is going to learn Spanish too? They will start by downloading a Spaced Repetition System flashcard app like Anki. They will take note of the greetings, connectors, catchphrases and technical terms you need to learn. Spaced Repetition Systems work by scheduling words for review just in time. You don’t review every word every day. You only see the ones that are at risk of being forgotten. It’s Spaced out in time.

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All the time in the world.

Third, your admin is going to find you some listening, viewing, and reading material. Do you prefer pop music, heavy metal, news podcasts or talk shows? Ask them to download Spanish versions for you to listen to during your commute or your workouts. Do you like sitcoms, documentaries, adventure, or home improvement shows? Ask your admin to find Spanish language versions for you to watch after dinner, on the weekends, or when you’re traveling. Do you like to read in your spare time? There are news websites in simple Spanish for learners. Or get children’s books.

Wrapping it up

The biggest contributor to your success will be your attitude. If you tell yourself you can do this, you’re right. If you tell yourself you can’t do it, you’ll be right about that instead.

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“If you think you’ll be eaten by Godzilla…”

Speak every day for at least 5 minutes in Spanish. Make this a non-negotiable item. Move the other things around. Remind everyone that you have to present at your event.

Remember, you’re doing this to build a team. When they see the results of your efforts, not only will they be amazed, they’ll also appreciate your commitment. That’s the fuel for high-performing teams.

2 thoughts on “Language Learning for Executives

  1. Cameron Nokes

    Great post Marcus, some really good advice and practical tips and applications. Thanks for sharing!

    Hope you are doing well,
    Cameron

    P.S. – Still doing stand-up comedy (or just entertaining blog posts)?

    Reply
    • Marcus Post author

      Hey Cameron! Great to hear from you. Yeah, I’m winding up my stay in Berlin (and Germany, and Europe), but it’s going well. I’ve met a lot of great people and seen some beautiful buildings and paintings.

      I think I’ll be getting back into stand up soon. Hopefully I’ve got some good material after this year.

      Take care.

      Reply

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