Being Bilingual Helps: ESL, Localization and Technical Communication

Bilingual TWs help with Localization in an ESL workplace“‘Following your privies e-mail,’ is ‘privies’ the correct word?” Questions like these are pretty common in ESL (English as a Second Language) environments, where, as a bilingual technical writer, you are one of the few, and possibly the only native English speaker in a team, department, or even the entire company. Working in an environment where everyone else is communicating in a strange language (i.e. not English) poses several challenges, especially during this age of globalization. Possessing a second language can help you overcome them, and even turn out to be an important asset where you can demonstrate your added value by being the localization bridge between your team and your customers and the business world at large.

“Boker Tov” (Good morning), “Ma Nishma” (how are you doing?), and “Eich ani mekanfeg et ha-SQL” (How do I configure the SQL server) are becoming fairly common phrases in many high-tech environments. Conversing in English poses a difficult challenge for those not raised in an Anglo environment. Especially for SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) who spent the majority of their university career learning how to set up an Active Directory, instead of conversational English. As a technical writer, you need to be able to communicate with your coworkers to gather information. Being able to ask questions in another language, and more importantly being capable of understanding the answers provided, makes the task of gathering information easier for all sides, the technical writer, the SME, and the user who ends up never reading the manual.

Asking for existing material, and receiving a 30-page document in Mandarin, can be a problem if you’ve never been to China. It is fairly common for employees to produce their own internal manuals, and when those manuals look like gobbledygook, you’re going to be in trouble. You have no way of understanding the content, and more importantly, no way of knowing whether the content is accurate and reliable. However, if you are bilingual, you have the ability to transform this unverified content into a huge asset. The internal manuals can be used as important source material for localizing technical content, and you can use your knowledge of the language to update the information and use it for internal training purposes.

As the only native English speaker, you are going to be perceived as an expert on all things English. Chances are that you will be writing the style guide, which only you will end up using. No one else in the company is going to understand or care what an Oxford comma is, or whether the spelling and punctuation are British English, American English, or whatever it is the Australians speak. You, as the bilingual technical writer, are responsible for maintaining the language standards, because no one else in the company is going to be capable of catching on to any mistakes you make. On the other hand, your secrets are safe – only you and the ignorant customers will ever know about your accidental spelling mistakes.

Keep in mind that just because you are bilingual does not mean that the people you work with share the same superpower. Whatever technical content you write, someone else is going to have to read and review it. Being required to read “boring” technical content is something that all SMEs need to do, and most hate doing, especially when they have difficulty with the language the content is written in. Working in an ESL environment often means a constant battle to get your content reviewed, but it’s not impossible if you follow some guidelines:

  • Help others: Going out of your way to help your fellow employees when they need you often means that they will reciprocate when you need them.
  • Make the job easier: Don’t send out large amounts of content if you can avoid it. If you are updating material, highlight the changed passages. Don’t send a 50 page document, if you can send it out in more manageable, less intimidating 5 to 10 page chunks. The more difficult the task the more likely it is that your SME’s will procrastinate, so make it easier to get it off their plate.
  • Know who to talk to: You can waste a lot of time getting the designated SME to review your content when the QA person you share a cubicle with is perfectly capable of doing the job. Rarely will there be only one person in your work environment capable of helping you, so knowing who to approach is half the work.

Being the only English speaker in your work environment makes you a huge asset, By being THE native speaker, the big cheese, the guru of all things English, you have the ability to help improve the language of your coworkers, which ultimately makes your job easier. Instead of spending all your effort turning all the “witches” into “which,” and the “tolls” into “tools,” you can focus more of your attention on the actual content. However, bear in mind that exposure works two ways, your English may rub off on your teammates, but their misuse of the language is just as likely to rub off on you, unless you feel that “initialize” is a good substitute for “reboot.”

Working in an ESL environment can be difficult, and being bilingual helps. But having a sense of humor and a positive attitude also helps. The challenges in working in a different environment can either be obstacles or opportunities. Your approach will make all the difference.

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Yehoshua Paul

Yehoshua Paul is a documentation specialist, technical communicator, technical writer, content manager - you name it, he’s done it. In his five years as a technical writer, Yehoshua has managed to work in a wide variety of companies; from small startups to large multi-national corporations. Currently he is working as the lone technical writer in a software company that develops web-based systems for airlines, travel agencies and tour operators.

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