While we are mindful of the uncertainty of the present situation around the world, our hope is that the current record high levels of unemployment will shortly give way to record high hiring. As a growing business, we know that hiring the right people is not just a part of running a business, it is the key to running a successful business. That’s why we are committed to designing solutions that help business around the world find the right people with the right skillset.
For these businesses, the right skillset includes foreign language ability. Over the last decade job postings that request bilingual candidates have more than doubled in the U.S. and that statistic would likely be much higher around the world. However years of working with language learners have given me confidence that when you hire someone with experience learning a second language you get more than just the ability to translate or interpret. Candidates that can demonstrate some level of ability of multilingual skill bring with them many additional strengths that can be invaluable to hire for but may be difficult to see on a resume. Here’s 6 reasons to consider a candidate’s experiences learning a language that you may not have considered.
1. Experiences learning a second language prepare a person to quickly learn the ‘words’ they need to thrive in a new job.
I recently made a significant transition from an administrative position at a university to now working in a product manager role here at a tech company. Despite my prior job being good preparation for this new position, these are two very different roles in very different professional domains. Now I have educational background in business and many years tinkering with technology solutions to educational problems. However, it was my experiences learning a second language that helped me remain steady and confident as new jargon swirled around me.
Throughput, stand-up, lean, WIP limit, cross-functional, distributed, mob, Q3. All English words but none had been part of the vernacular of my previous life. No one took the time to tell me what they meant. Why would they? They were technically from my mother tongue. Bilingual candidates are comfortable with two realities of the world of words. First, sometimes the same thing in different contexts has different names. Second, things that didn’t have a name in one context may be so significant enough in a new context that they have multiple names. Learning a language gives you strategies to learn new words and strategies to cope with words that you haven’t learned yet.
2. Experiences learning a new language give a person practice leaning into vulnerability.
Being hired feels great but it’s not easy to be the new kid on the block. Growing up we have fairly short cycles between big changes and we go through these changes in similar ways and at similar times to the cohort we are in. A work transition especially when you are fortunate enough to have had many years since the last change brings uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. These three words are at the core of Dr. Brené Brown’s definition of vulnerability. Far from something that we should check at the door on our first day, vulnerability is as Brown puts it, ‘the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.’
Language learning and language practice is like vulnerability cross fit. It provides high-intensity interval training in assuming a growth mindset. The armor of perfectionism comes off pretty quick when you trade in your native language. Last year I went back to Korea after nearly a decade since my last visit. My language skills had atrophied significantly. The friend who I had anticipated being available to tour with me as a translator started a new job days before I arrived. So I was left with a decision. I could shrink back and let my limitations set engagement or I could follow Dr. Brown’s advice and “have the courage to show up and be seen” with a whole heart even if I had half a tongue. I leaned in and loved every minute making new connections and deepening treasured ties.
3. Experiences learning a second language transform a person’s cognition in powerful and persistent ways.
I recently had a conversation with Dave Adsit our CTO; Dave’s had extensive experiences growing teams through strategic hiring. He talked about how teams are only as successful as their collective mental model is broad and varied. At whatever level of proficiency a person attains, experiences learning another language extend and expand cognitive skills. Not every language and every means to language acquisition have the same effect but research is consistent in the cognitive benefits of learning a second language.
Candidates with bilingual or multilingual skills seem to naturally dodge ‘cognitive traps.’ A ‘cognitive trap’ is when our minds mute mistakes in spelling or comprehension. Learning a language has been associated with decision making that is more objective and self-awareness that is present and precise. These cognitive benefits have a long shelf-life. Research shows that the attention mechanism that is honed through learning a second language may preserve mental sharpness and help the bilinguals delay dementia and Alzheimer’s. A person doesn’t even have to become fluent to reap these benefits, even basic linguistic connections in a second language strengthen and stabilize long-term cognition.
4. Experiences learning a language help a person become T-shaped: a jack of all trades and a master of one.
Although you don’t want to hire a tool, you do want to hire multi-tools. Recently in our technology team’s book club, we discussed the principle of T-shaped human resources. T-shaped people are deep in one area and broad in many. Depth of expertise can be applied to solve the big problems a person was hired to address; breadth of experience and interest allows the same individual to be shifted around to meet new demands and collaborate well across multiple dimensions of the business.
Being bilingual and having experience learning a language broaden you as a person. As a Czech proverb explains, “You live a new life for every language you speak. If you know only one language, you only live once.” It’s impossible to learn a language without also learning about new cultures, new environments, new people, and new history. Simultaneously as the language learning broadens a person it also deepens their understanding and apply critical reasoning to what they already knew. If you’re a native English speaker, what is the fastest way to increase your understanding of the English language? Simple: learn any other language. You’ll experience the same effect all of the other domains that language learning affects.
5. Experiences learning a language help make a person a better listener. Better listeners are better co-workers, better employees, and better entrepreneurs.
Julian Treasure, an expert in sound, gave a TED talk that has over 8 million views. In it he frames a key concern for modern society and a threat to every organization. Although we humans spend roughly 60 percent of our communication time listening, we’re not very good at it. Research shows that we retain just 25 percent of what we hear. I agree with Julian’s premise and his recommendations are insightful. The talk is definitely well worth the listen (pun intended). However, I would counter one key complaint when he says, ‘we need to teach listening in our schools as a skill. Why is it not taught? It’s crazy.’ I agree teaching the skill of listening is essential and that it should have a place in our schools.
My disagreement is that I believe that many schools do teach listening at least those that teach foreign languages. Listening in our native language can become very passive and inarguably lazy. Listening in a second language is a workout. Switching between what we call in language teaching ‘bottom-up’ listening where the learner pulls understanding up from the discrete text and ‘top down’ listening where the learner pulls understanding down from situational context is not just more effortful it is exhausting. But it is also conditioning. Training your listening skills through studying a second language and becoming bilingual is one of the most authentic ways to hone your ability to listen in your first language.
6. Experiences learning a second language increase empathy.
People generally don’t address their narcissism in their cover letter or interview; if only a hiring manager had a sorting hat to separate the jerks from the gems, they could save an immense amount of company time and money. Empathy is a highly impactful intangible trait. New research suggests that bilingual and multilingial individuals are better able to understand that the perspective that another person has is different from their own. To set up the study, researchers positioned a child at a different angle to a table of toy cars of different sizes from the researcher. The child had a view of the smallest car on the table but the adult’s view of this smallest car was obviously blocked. When the researcher said ‘I see a small car’ and asked the child to move it, children who had any level of second language exposure or mastery were significantly more likely to move the smallest car within the researcher’s field of vision instead of the truly smallest car that only they could see.
As it relates to empathy the researchers argue that “To understand a speaker’s intention, one must take the speaker’s perspective. Multilingual exposure may promote effective communication by enhancing perspective-taking.” The research was also very encouraging because as exposure to a second language offered similar benefits to mastery of it. How does empathy supercharge an organization? Increased levels of empathy have been shown to increase sales, loyalty and referrals; accelerate productivity and innovation; and expand engagement and collaboration. Research shows that empathetic companies have better retention and higher morale.
Are there great monolingual candidates out there? Of course. My intention wasn’t to pit the starbellied sneetches against those that have none upon thars. However, thanks to modern technologies, the barriers to learning and meaningful practice in a foreign language have never been lower which means the advantages that have been described here are at our fingertips and only a thumb-swipe away. Future posts will highlight some of these language learning tools that we love. It’s never too late to start.
However we stand by the value that learning languages presents. It has enhanced our life; it enhances our company, and it enhances our community. We also believe that when something is important you should measure it. So if you’re in a position that makes hiring decisions and you want the ability to quickly and cheaply assess language ability, we’ve got tools to help.
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