When your origin, current location and universal standard waltz together.
Do you live in the country where you were born? Do you work using only your mother tongue? 43% of world’s population is bilingual, so what is mother tongue anyway?
The way the world looks today gives us immense opportunities to work with whomever we see fit at a press of a button. Those who say that they have never felt lonelier at work have yet to discover that the globe is at their fingertips. We mix skills, nationalities, time zones… and languages. If we have the courage. If not, the language barrier becomes a road block to one’s professional development.
I was born in Poland by two Polish parents. I moved to Sweden at 13, without knowing a word if Swedish except for ABBA and IKEA. My English was quite decent, however, due to an overambitious English teacher for a God Mother who refused to ever speak Polish to me. Plus some private schooling upon arrival. Thanks to this forced bilingualism, it took me about three months to learn Swedish good enough to get by. I still live in Sweden three decades later and until recently, I was working in Swedish and English only. Although Swedish is technically not my mother tongue, I’d consider it as flawless, and my English is at the level of this article. My Polish has become… “interesting” as I’d only use it four times a year: talking to my Dad on Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday, my birthday and his birthday. From proficient to poor, since practice makes perfect and the lack of it makes…embarrassing.
A few years ago, I got to know a person who made me a deal. He had just moved to Sweden (from Poland) for love and was taking his first “Swedish for immigrants” lessons. We decided that I’d start speaking Polish again and he would learn Swedish. This was the best decision of my 2010s and since then it has been a balancing act between mother tongue, language of residence and something that works everywhere. I decided to, apart from speaking to a Swedish audience and the “global” one, that I’d also aim at my “home land” and see how I could succeed as an international Polish Woman. During the last 18 months, I’ve gone from wondering what “January” is in Polish to producing online content and giving both live and online keynotes on idea generation to the Polish business community. Plus, I coach Polish entrepreneurs one-on-one nowadays — no manuscript, no retakes.
Something I still struggle with is which language to use in my communication, on my website and social media. You see, in my case: since I’ve been in Sweden for so long, the “name” I have built for myself is at the moment mostly here — so a safe advice would be for me to simply stick with Swedish. My very wise mentor keeps saying to me (I apparently need this repeated!) not to close any doors, hence use English as my first choice. And still I am very excited about the Polish market and the possibility to enter it as “someone who made it abroad”. The thing is: Polish people generally don’t like English, and most of them don’t understand Swedish. Do you see the dilemma? At the time of writing I’ve chosen English as my communication language but I create three separate versions of all my courses and workshops. Time consuming, but worth it.
This story is not about me at all. I use me as an example and a living proof that you can create the career for yourself that looks however you want it to — so it’s actually totally about YOU. You might not have three languages to joggle, but two — which can be more than enough. The language of your origin and the language where you live at the moment.
Maybe you moved as a child and are actually not struggling at all. Maybe English comes to you effortlessly (despite the fact that you still occasionally need to visit Grammarly, you are doing OK). Or perhaps you moved as an adult, for work or for love, and everyday is a struggle to fit into an environment when you experience a great disadvantage due to your language skills, or lack thereof. I have multiple friends who deliberately chose not to learn the second (or third) language upon a relocation, but instead are sticking with English. Do I think that they are making a right choice? No, I don’t.
It took me forever to send an e-mail to a Poland’s largest online course portal with a request of becoming a course creator. How could someone with my “Polish” even consider teaching idea generation to Polish students? And then I figured out two things: first, there was not an idea generation course on that site at the moment and I am passionate about helping people invest their time in smart things instead of idiotic not well thought through ideas. Second, a large number of my role models actually work in a language that they don’t fully master. Needless to say, I was accepted and created an “Idea Lab” in Polish. The staff found my way of teaching (including the language) “refreshing”.
Why am I telling you this? Because if I had the courage to do it, then so will you. Or if this doesn’t at all apply to you but you are still reading — perhaps you know a person who is in this exact situation, who struggles with a language limbo and doesn’t really know what to make of it. It’s your job to tell them following: (of if this is you, i’m telling you this)
Please remember that your origin, and your original language is a huge part of what makes you YOU. If you are bothered by your accent in any different language — practice. In Poland in particular, there are still no subtitles in foreign movies. To my knowledge, most of TV-programs have voiceover which deprives people of hearing the correct pronunciation. No wonder that it doesn’t sound “right” when a Pole speaks English. In Sweden, they “sing”, but it still better than the harsh eastern vowels. Practice, until you are feeling comfortable enough to speak.
There is something called “foreign language effect”: the emotional distance some people feel when speaking a foreign language. However, when there is no emotion involved in a particular decision, the foreign language effect seems to disappear. I believe that once you come to terms with your accent — either accept it or perfect it, the vocabulary and the rest of it will sort itself out, and bring the confidence you need to be able to express yourself.
I actually fully accepted and embraced my “Polish” as it is. Of course, I try to improve it every single day but I also enter my keynotes saying: “this is what it sounds like and if I don’t know a word, I’ll create it — after all I work with creative solutions”. Big laugh, and all is forgiven. The audience finds it “charming” and the door to teaching them valuable information on my area of expertise becomes wide open. What did it take to get there? The fact that I had the courage to create a course for a big deal platform. If the accepted me, so should everyone else. Starting with myself.
P.s. It happens, rarely but still, that I actually downplay my Polish, “for show”. Working with it every day for a few years has made it profoundly better and a part of me wants to keep the “broken accent” persona. Rarely, but still, guilty as charged. And I know a few English speaking comics who live and work in Sweden, who keep their perfect Swedish a secret because it would take away their greatest unique selling point — and half of their material…
But how does this work in the daily life? Well, my days often start with a few hours of writing (in English). Then I work on a big project that I have dedicated 50% of my hours to (Swedish, sometimes English research), then I coach clients or create content (any of the three), then I have dinner with my partner (Swedish), hang around on Clubhouse (English or Polish) and read or listen to something before going to sleep (any of the three). Most days I manage to switch at a heartbeat, sometimes I don’t. When I get a “ehm… what?” during a phone call with my (Swedish) step-dad or a strange glance from my (Swedish) neighbor or a question mark emoji during a chat (in any language), then I know that I’m “out biking” as we say in Sweden. And then we all laugh about it. And go on with our thing. I’ve found myself hanging on Google Translate a lot (last thing I checked was “exclamation mark” in Polish), but instead of feeling ashamed of not knowing/remembering a word, I am grateful for getting an answer in a matter of seconds.
Plus… and this is the best benefit of being multicultural and working in a few languages: you can choose and noone will now. Some days I am extremely Swedish, other days my Polish blood takes over, and on yet different occasions I happily answer “yes” if they ask if I’m from Canada. Oh Canada! Or the Netherlands. Or a different European country with a decent English. This is a choice that only foreigners have, think about that. Never feel disadvantaged by the fact that you needed to learn a second (third, fourth?) language late in life. See it as a gift and a USP and make sure to master your joggling skills.
If you know your dancing, you do know that waltz is a three step dance. I found that comparison very appropriate.