Languages at Work

Lunch is a language opportunity!

At work I’m trying to start informal language education.  I work at a large, international corporation, where employees speak multiple languages.  From my cubicle I often hear Somali and Hindi, and sometimes German and Spanish.  The people in my office are well educated; everyone speaks good English.  Significantly, the non-native English speakers have a lot to teach us native English speakers.  Lunch provides a great forum for language learning.

Lunch forms the basis of this educational pursuit.  My cube-mate, who is Somali, teaches me his language whenever I have questions for him.  I have a book, and I ask him questions.  I use my few phrases throughout the day, eg, “Subax wanaagsan” = Good morning; “Wa inoo hadhow” = See you in a minute; “Reerka igu salaan” = Say hello to your family.  He is a good sport whenever I try to speak.  Recently we decided to expand this informal exchange, heretofore limited to our cubicle.  We put up a sign on the cafeteria bulletin board, and now once a week we have “Somali Table,” where we do a little bit more formal study open to all.

Our table supports existing goals of the company, we found out.  The official international employee group found out about our Somali table and was excited, so they sent our flier out to hundreds of people on their mailing list.  We are promoting a goal that this group was already working towards.  The group has been promoting language education, but nothing seems to have stuck.  At one time, they had Chinese courses after work, but preparing and teaching the lessons ultimately burnt out the employee-teachers.  The international group recently got a group subscription to Transparent Language, a decent on-line language-learning package.  Our group’s strength comes from the fact that it is fed by the languages spoken at the company; people can practice it daily at work (not to mention throughout the city).  In addition, students drive the lessons, which means more preparation for the students than for the teacher, preventing burn-out.

The table also helps bring people of different cultures together.  We met another Somali employee, and he came to our last Somali table.  He has a knack for teaching, which I love.  Now I have two teachers and I couldn’t be happier.  They give me insight into accents and slang, which I really enjoy.  My two Somali friends talk about Somalia in front of me, which teaches me about the culture as well as the language.  I also like to think that they enjoy the opportunity to chat with a co-national.  The table provides not only language education, but also a forum for people to discuss their culture.

My cube-mate wants us to organize something with the Hindi-speakers now . . .

I think this is a model that any medium-sized or larger business could develop at a very low cost.  So many companies currently promote global engagement in their missions, but how many provide daily opportunities open to all employees?  And how many utilize the global knowledge that their employees already possess?  Our lunch-time model provides a simple solution for such companies.  It only costs time for the participants, but since we meet during lunch, even the time costs are low.

Do you have speakers of various languages at work?  Have your invited them to teach you their language?  How has it worked out?  Do you want to learn from them?  Can I help you out?


9 thoughts on “Languages at Work

  1. Ulrike Rettig

    Learning other languages during work – informally – is one of the best ways to learn to speak and keep up the enthusiasm, the topic of one of our recent blogs. ( Too often the initial excitement of learning a new language gives way to frustration and boredom that progress is not faster. But with your language table and the opportunity to speak and practice daily new words and phrases can keep it going. Having been a participant of many German tables, I have found that throwing out a question or a topic of general interest keeps everybody involved and talking, but that’s what you may be doing already!


  2. I think this is a great idea as well! People need to be motivated for this to work. It’s also good that you have a course book to guide you. I’ve met lots of people who work with Mexicans who want to learn Spanish. Their companies would greatly benefit from them learning Spanish since most of the labor is Mexican. I think the trouble comes from helping people understand what learning a language is like and what it requires. They often get discouraged when they are doing fine and stop studying before they get to fluency.


  3. You bring up a good point, Ryan. People don’t even know what learning a language is like and they want to stop. I think that if we find ourselves in a position where we can use our language every day, we run less of a risk of stopping. Though stopping is a danger even for us language-lovers.

    But I really want people to get used to learning languages. Thanks!


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