հայ ես – hay yes [hɑj jɛs]
Are you Armenian?
That was one of the first phrases in a foreign language that I remember hearing. I was six years old and in the first grade when I was approached by a group of kids during recess asking if I spoke their language.
My family had just moved from New Mexico to Glendale, California, and my new elementary school was extremely diverse. I had classmates from very different cultures and backgrounds. I grew used to hearing different languages at school and at my friends’ homes. At school, teachers would have to make sure that any letter sent home was printed not only in English, but also Korean, Tagalog, Armenian, Farsi, and Spanish.
And because of the world I experienced outside my home, I thought my family was unique; we mostly spoke English at home. Even though my seven older siblings grew up speaking Spanish, my family had transitioned to almost entirely English at home by the time I came along.
Sensing there was a missed opportunity somewhere, my mom wanted to ensure I learned Spanish by immersion. During summer break between ninth and tenth grade I went to live with relatives in Costa Rica. I was enrolled in the same school as my cousins where no one around me spoke any English.
My Spanish improved greatly, but I was far from becoming bilingual. Like many children of first generation immigrants, I could understand a lot of my mother’s language, but didn’t always know how to respond. I saw and began to understand the frustration of not being able to communicate and be understood. It took another five years and a move to Venezuela for me to feel confident in my command of the Spanish language.
During the two years I spent living in South America, I not only became fluent in Spanish, I started to pick up on different accents and recognize the differences in how people spoke Spanish based on where they were raised. I became fascinated with how our minds absorb, process, and interpret voice patterns from those around us.
When I returned from Venezuela and started college, I began exploring other languages. In addition to my advanced Spanish classes, I signed up for introductory courses in Italian, French, Chinese, and Russian. When it came time to select a college major, I chose linguistics with a minor in Spanish.
In order to complete my degree, I had to study a non-Indo-European language. I challenged myself and opted for Mandarin Chinese. Learning Chinese was very difficult; I struggled to distinguish the different tones expressed in very short syllables. But, knowing that my best chance at gaining any level of proficiency would require immersing myself in the language, I jumped on the opportunity to teach English in China and Taiwan. While there, I met regularly with tutors and friends who helped me improve my language skills.
My Chinese is still very basic, but I gained a great understanding of Chinese culture and non-verbal ways of communicating. Language learning requires both humility and confidence. You need to be humble to allow yourself to make and learn from mistakes, but confident enough to open your mouth and believe that you’ll eventually be understood.
Even with all my experience studying languages and living abroad, my language skills are only average. And still, knowing just a little bit or enough of a language has led me to some incredible experiences traveling the world. My basic communication skills have literally both saved my life and opened unbelievable doors of opportunity.
Application of language skills
As for a career, my interest in languages led me to pursue opportunities in diplomacy and international business. I was working as a recruiter for foreign language teachers teaching US diplomats when I first came across Emmersion. As a recruiter, I needed an efficient solution to identify native language speakers who were also capable of providing course instruction and curriculum in English. I mentioned the need to a few people in my network, and they referred me to Emmersion.
I reached out to the company and signed up for a discovery call. After watching a demo of their speaking assessment, I was blown away by the test’s ability to challenge people and accurately score their language skills.
Emmersion impressed me not only with how their products would help me with my work as a recruiter, but the mission and culture of the company, too. Emmersion seemed to perfectly align with my life’s experiences and personal values, so when I saw an opening, I immediately applied for a job.
As I continue to work here, I’m amazed by the way Emmersion’s language validation provides opportunities for job candidates and solves the language screening problem for all kinds of companies around the world.
Language is a central piece in cultural competency and human connection. As I think back to my classmates in elementary school with all of our unique backgrounds and different ways of communicating, I’m grateful for tools like Emmersion that help create a more open, understanding, and united world.
Sergio Lewis is a member of the global accounts team at Emmersion. He’s bilingual in English and Spanish, and kind of speaks Portuguese, Italian, French, and Mandarin Chinese.
Experience certified language ability for yourself
Emmersion is a fully automated and adaptive language assessment engine for certifying speaking, writing, and grammar ability in 9 global languages with immediate results. Click below to try a free Emmersion assessment for yourself.