Let me try to grab your attention by first sharing my perhaps somewhat controversial conclusion:
English as a language of communication is much overrated. In an international setting, English may be sufficient for conveying meaning, but it has severe deficiencies when it comes to establishing a social relationship, to showing respect, to building trust, and to having fun.
For many years, I have attempted at learning how to say "thank you" and "please don't smoke" and "where is the toilet" in the local language. So I know to say "gdye tualet" in Russia, "where are the restrooms" in the US, or just a simplified "donde baÃƒÂ±os" in the Spanish speaking world.
Now, early this year, I got the assignment to travel around the Sun locations of the world. And I decided to raise my ambition level. I wanted to give a five-to-ten minute introduction to my presentation in the local language, no matter what language that may be.
The inspiration for that ambition I got from the enthusiastic reception of merely greeting the audience in the local language. In 2001, I got a rock star reception in Belgrade, Serbia -- just for saying "Dobar dan svima!" (good day to you all). Last year in Seoul, Korea, I got plentiful applause just for saying "Anyong haseo". Such enthusiasm felt a bit undeserved for two-three words, so I decided to see what would happen if I raise the bar.
Now, I've given 5-10 minute presentations in Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Czech, Turkish and Russian. As I don't really speak any of those languages, what I did was reading aloud from a script. And I'd like to share my experiences.
My recipe for delivering a presentation in a language I don't speak is this:
- Write the presentation in a language you know
- Target the message to the audience
- say who you are, where you're from, why you're here
- be clear on your key message, the simpler the better
- sprinkle in some humour, but don't be too ambitious
- make sure your text is not generic, but specific to the audience
- Ask a local to translate the presentation (Thanks Giuseppe for translating my original French meetup presentation to Italian! Thanks Kazumi-san for Japanese! And thanks to all Sun colleagues in Beijing, Prague, Istanbul and St Petersburg for your translation help -- without it, none of this would have happened!)
- If the language has an unknown or just hard to read character set, then transcribe it (I did so for Japanese, Chinese and Russian, but not for Italian, Czech or Turkish)
- Study by reading a page or two (spend at least 15-30 mins) on how to pronounce that language
- Add notes to your script, to make your pronunciation intelligible
- Emphasis: Some languages put stress on seemingly random syllables, such as Russian -- deNOTe THOse SYLlables SOMehow
- Tone: In some languages, tone carries meaning -- such as Chinese
- Add notes to your script, to make your speech enjoyable
- denote the *words* that you want to *underline* when *speaking* (if you stress every word in the same way, your speech will be boring and monotonous)
- denote when you want to ask the audience for questions, such as <raise your hand, wait for audience response>
- Practice your speech with one or more locals
- over the phone beforehand
- in the destination just before the presentation
- have fun when doing it
- Read the presentation aloud from your paper script
- keep eye contact
- don't be too fast, don't be too slow
- enjoy the audience feedback
- have fun! enjoy!
- Ask how it went, afterwards
- how many percent did the audience understand?
- ask for honest (not just polite) feedback in private
- Optionally: Arrange for your speech to be recorded
The outcome from following this recipe has by far exceeded my high expectations:
- the Italians, Japanese, Chinese, Czech, Turks, and Russians all gave me their undivided attention during all of the 5-10 minutes
- based on informal feedback, I estimate that 80-90% of the contents of my Chinese was understood (my ambition level was "at least 70%"), with Japanese exceeding 90%, and the other languages exceeding 95%
- a Japanese blogged about having goose bumps when listening to a gai-jin speaking (or rather pretending to speak) Japanese
- the extroverted Chinese interrupted my speech in Beijing for about eight times, for applause
- all audiences laughed at the intended spots (in particular where towards the end of the presentation, I self-deprecatingly said "As I'm sure you've noticed by now, I *don't* speak <language>")
- several Turkish attendees thanked me afterwards in person, in a way that seemed even more sincere than polite (and by all means, it was polite)
- the usually notoriously quiet Russians bombarded me with 50 minutes of questions after my presentation, and also the equally quiet Japanese had more questions than we had time
I've discussed and analysed the reasons behind this positive feedback, with colleagues at Sun. My going theory is this:
- I show that I'm the stupid foreigner here -- common courtesy would require me to know the local language, not the locals to know a foreign language
- going out of my comfort zone, I attract attention and show respect to the locals
- making mistakes in the local language, I show I'm ready to invest in the relationship
- as so few others are ready for this extra effort, the expectation level for the quality of my language skills is surprisingly low
- the attitude I display gains trust and comfort -- and better business level interaction
I always feel strange when people apologise to me for their lack of knowledge of English. True, my command of the English language may exceed that of some taxi drivers in St Petersburg, London or New York. Yet, English is and probably will remain my third language. My native language is Swedish, and I feel more comfortable in German than in English, at least when the topic isn't strictly related to my professional life. English is also chronologically my third language, as I learned Finnish before English at school. In consequence, when I state that the official common language of MySQL is Bad English, I consider myself a case in point. And the statement seems a relief for everyone when I say it.
All in all, there's nothing wrong with English. It's a good language, like many others. But just like in biology, monoculture comes with many risks, and diversity is good. Let's celebrate it, let's enjoy it, and let's reap business benefits out of it!
- Sun Meetup-Mashup in Italy: http://youtube.com/watch?v=UjwdhFpNR8s
- A slightly more English-centric view of Italian (by Monty Python): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9TVYCffHEE
- A video of my presentation in Chinese: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3036893738929286405&hl=en
- My blog entry on speaking Chinese: http://blogs.mysql.com/kaj/2008/04/28/nushimen-xianshengmen-a-speech-in-chinese-on-video/
- Chinese comments: http://www.google.cn/search?sourceid=navclient&hl=zh-CN&ie=UTF-8&rls=IBMA,IBMA:2008-18,IBMA:zh-CN&q=MySQL+Ã¥Å’â€”Ã¤ÂºÂ¬+Kaj
- Pics from Beijing event: http://event.full-design.com/Sun/MySQL/photos/photos.htm