In recent years, international recognition of institutions, academic mobility, and cultural diversity, have altogether led to an increase in the number of people pursuing higher education, and thus, careers in intense fields such as the law and STEM.
Many students, particularly at a postgraduate level, opt to leave their home countries and study abroad. Not only that, but many workers, particularly in highly mobile fields such as engineering, pursue a career abroad, too.
This can be problematic for those who don't speak the language, and it is a prevalent issue across Europe. In total, there are 24 official languages, and only 13% of the European population, according to 2012 Eurobarometer research, speak English—and that's not a figure representative of fluent speakers, either. With the UK now leaving the EU, this figure will be reduced further still.
It is clear that language barriers, therefore, present a major problem for those who want to work on the continent. So, what can engineers and other industry professionals do to overcome them?
An Insurmountable Challenge
Today's global economic landscape may have convinced many companies to focus on overseas expansion as a core goal; however, this is somewhat detrimental to members of the workforce that opt—and sometimes are forced—to work overseas for their employers.
It is not only communication between employees and end clients in the end country that are problematic, however: international business relations are also challenging for companies that struggle to effectively communicate with their foreign partners. In fact, almost 50% of 600 executives surveyed said that language barriers and misunderstandings have caused failed business dealings.
How Engineers Can Overcome Language Barriers When Working Abroad
The overarching theme here is that preparation is key—not only on the part of the employee, but the employer, too. It is reasonable for natives to expect foreign workers to have a basic level of proficiency, and this opens the door to deeper, more contextual learning.
Prepare Prior to Leaving
As the saying goes, “Do something today that your future self will thank you for”.
The best thing that an engineer bound for another country can do is learn the language, or at least have a basic grasp of it. While it can of course take years to grasp a language, simply knowing some basic words and phrases can go a very long way and have a huge impact on, not only your professional life, but your personal one, too.
Several tools are available to assist engineers on this front, one of the easiest being downloading an app and putting in an hour or two per day.
Learn from the Locals
While language apps and one-to-one resources are invaluable, being in another country provides foreign workers with a great opportunity to learn from those who know the language best: the locals.
Learning from a native speaker—most likely through a language course with a native speaker—enables contextual learning. There's nothing quite like hearing something in its true form with the true accent, regional dialects, and other nuances that wouldn't be heard through an app or from reading a book.
Never Avoid Communicating
Engineers should take every opportunity they can to practise their speaking and not shy away from communicating with native co-workers. Collaborating on projects together and having small conversations will begin to pay off over time with huge gains in overall language skills.
This, of course, first requires a basic understanding of the language—there is no escaping this.
Remember: Language Skills Are Non-Negotiable
Germany, a country with a huge demand for engineers, is one of Europe's most popular destinations for foreign workers and is a fantastic 'case study' for what to do if you want to land a job on the continent.
Regardless of the country, the situation is the same: if you want to not only work there but flourish, language skills are key. Unfortunately, there is no magic remedy: you have to put the effort in and learn a language yourself. Even in a field like engineering (or really anything STEM-related), which are highly practical and involve concepts that are already understood globally, you still need to be able to communicate effectively with your colleagues.
Again, it's not all down to the employee, though: employers that are truly set on global expansion should provide training courses and support to their staff who will be heading overseas.