How do I keep up?
April 29, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

How can I keep a good attitude and stay in charge of my project when I am not working in my native language?

I am an anglophone project manager in Montreal working in a French environment. There are very few anglophones in my position, I feel very lucky to be here, but the truth is someone should be fluent in French to do this job really well. I realized this last year, so I took a PM course to build some confidence, and to gain an edge over the francophone players, who I suspect wonder why I'm here.

Everyone is aware of my level of French, which is beginner / intermediate. I understand everything if 1 person is talking, but once there's a lively discussion I lose track, or have to concentrate damn hard. I usually respond in English, which can also slow down the dialog. I'm the project manager, so I am the ears, eyes and leader of my department. I mostly get by with confidence, but sometimes, like today, I sit through a 1 1/2 hour inter-departmental meeting that I can barely contribute to because the Quebec slang comes on thick and my mind wanders, or I get hung up on a word. I mostly try to keep the meeting on track when it veers off, and look at 'next actions', but it kills me that I can't engage in the technical discussion (which I would be capable of in English). It makes me feel like a dead weight, and frankly, stupid.

Do you have any suggestions on how to handle myself in a room when the French gets too much for me? I have tried to interject, and sometimes it works, but sometimes I get talked right over. I also don't want to stop an interesting technical conversation, when everyone in the room is following, except me.
posted by gillianr to Human Relations (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think you just need practice. Is there a group you could join outside of work to practice your conversational French? Or do you have francophone friends you normally speak to in English who you could try speaking with in French instead?
posted by spinto at 10:39 AM on April 29, 2010

Do they understand English well? (I assume they do, but I know it's not the case of all Québecois.) Ask them if it's okay for you to respond in English, making it clear to them that you want/expect them to reply in French/their native language. You could joke about getting your French up to par in the mean time, while using English to get the job done until the French level is there. I'm sure they'll understand; I do this myself occasionally in France, when I know what I want to say in English, I'm speaking with someone I know understands English, and for whatever reason my French mind has blanked out. (And I've lived here for 10 years now, plus I've got a BA in French... it's normal! It does get better with time and practice, so make as much effort as you can — which it seems you're doing, that's great — but don't worry too much. Ask them if it's okay; I bet it will be.)

Oh and, I work in an IT consultancy and have done this in management positions and with bigwig clients too. The key is getting everyone on board ahead of time and making it clear that you respect their native language. I've never met with anyone who sees it as a weakness; quite to the contrary, they recognize all the more that you're making a real effort.
posted by fraula at 11:14 AM on April 29, 2010

Try to change the challenge from language level to time. If you can, and it doesn't cause too much disruption, slow the flow of conversation down to a manageable pace; focus on trying to learn reasonable questions that delay and require reiteration/reconceptualization. To make a stereotype, I've met two kinds of second-language learners: the kind who control the conversation and the kind who try to catch up. The latter is more genial, the former learns faster.

I personally fall into the 'catch up' camp, though. What I do is try to ensure that I have a maximum amount of hard-copy documentation before I walk in the room. If I've seen a page of writing from each participant, I'll know many of the words they're going to use and even if I don't know what they're saying at any given time, I can often guess their basic position.

Hope that helps. Last thing -- it's hard! You're not stupid for thinking it's hard.
posted by Valet at 11:39 AM on April 29, 2010

i'm trying to become fluent in french and the listening/comprehension part has been rough because by nature french speakers like speaking THISFAST. i've been listening to a lot of french music/watching tv and dvds in french to try to get my listening up to par.

also, i work in a chinese speaking environment, and though i'm more or less fluent in chinese, sometimes it can be pretty hard for me when things get techy (i learned to speak chinese from my parents and grandparents, who weren't exactly talking to me about hardware and software). i hate seeming 'stupid' but it does help for me to stop and ask questions because otherwise i'll end up making mistakes if i've misinterpreted something. i'm sure my colleagues prefer me interrupting/asking questions to me making mistakes on projects. also you are lucky that at least your coworkers speak english!!! mine don't really understand english which sometimes makes my deciphering of techie stuff using alternate chinese interesting...
posted by raw sugar at 11:44 AM on April 29, 2010

This is an adult version of the problem faced in US schools of teaching academic subjects in English to English Language Learners (ELLs). If you Google using reading and ESOL terms such as:
ESOL - English to/for Speakers of Other Languages
ESL - English as a Second Language
TESOL - Teaching (ESOL)
BICS - Basic Intrapersonal Communicative Skills
CALP - Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency
you will get some pretty detailed, research-based information on what you are dealing with.

The last two are the problem you're specifically dealing with - you've already got BICS, the equivalent of which is playground or social proficiency in the target language. That usually takes about two years, more or less. You're working on CALP, or the professional version of it, which is waaaaay harder. Research indicates that if you're literate in your birth language, you can achieve CALP in 5-7 years - obviously not optimal for you on the job right now. OTOH you generally improve geometrically, not linearly, so as you get better, you get *a lot* better. Also, if you have any background in Latin or Greek, from school or an extracurricular interest in arts and sciences, proficiency will come more quickly because of how Latinized the romance languages are (with most of the exceptions coming from Greek).

Things you can do to speed things up: You're probably already literate in French, since it's easier to learn to read another language if you're already literate in one. Try getting printed and recorded versions of the same book(s) in French, and listen to the recordings as you follow along on the page. This gets the words into your head in both visual and auditory forms. Do all your technical reading for work aloud, even whispering, to the extent that you can, on the same premise.

Also, ask people in your department to use less slang and more formal speech in meeting environments, so you can stay in the flow of the meeting. At the same time, encourage people around you to use idioms as much as possible in non-meeting situations, and ask what they mean. Keep a notebook, and try to use them yourself, as many times as possible.
posted by toodleydoodley at 12:29 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd suggest seeing if you can record these meetings. Then you can go over them in your own time, stopping to translate whenever needed. This will serve two purposes:
- You'll know what's been going on
- You'll pick up vocab that otherwise passes you by

Hopefully, soon enough you'll get the knack of these meetings, and be able to dispense with the recording.
posted by djgh at 2:22 PM on April 29, 2010

Try and mix with body languages and tonality of voice....
if the tone of voice is really cheerful it must be something good. Then look for words that indicate the same. It seems like you are going to have to practice on the language in order not to get hung up on the slang words. Get some training on those by asking in the downtime and practice it for yourself.

Make a couple of people folks you can go and meet after the discussion to capture the points, that will help you best.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 5:31 PM on April 29, 2010

I speak French well, I went to French school my whole life, my accent is solid unless your really pay attention, but there I was, in the Frenchest of French Canadian companies, and I felt the way you did. In the end I didn't get rid of that stress you have until I started working in an English company BUT, one thing that helped? Watching French TV and reading French news and books, and finding a French guy that spoke English really well and didn't mind correcting me when I made mistakes and entertaining me with French expressions.

Pas besoin de parler anglais comme une vache espagnole.
posted by furtive at 9:54 PM on April 29, 2010

As a (now fluently) bilingual anglophone working in Montreal, I understand your pain. The only thing that helped me was time--I forced myself to be mentally alert in meetings when I wasn't quite following along, I did eventually learn the slang, the technical terms and etc.

It's extra tiring to work in your second language until you reach another level of fluency--I used to have to come home and nap...

As any sort of consolation/motivation, this is the best kind of immersion. Don't hesitate to ask your coworkers about slang you don't understand....most people love to discuss obscure parts of their cultural history.
posted by MissSquare at 4:47 AM on April 30, 2010

I am in an identical but continental situation (American in France). The recommendations for movies are good, but beyond that, you have to make the effort to make the francophone existence your life. For me, for example, I have to work in factories (loud) and entertain people, so... I have sought out opportunities to meet and socialize in French particularly at bars, restaurants, and similar noisy, confusing, yet forgiving, settings. Good luck.
posted by whatzit at 11:46 AM on May 2, 2010

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