Monday, September 28, 2009

Everything You Learn Well You Will Remember Forever

Everyday I talk to people who are interested in learning or improving a second or third language. Here in Ontario of course, a lot of this interest is focussed on French.

I have faced a lot of customers who say that they took some French in high school but after so many years they don't think they remember any of that and they assure me they need to start all the way from the beginner level.

It's funny, because something very similar happened to me. More or less 12 years ago, when I was looking for a job (my first serious job, that is, because by then I had already taught piano and English tutoring lessons at home and I had tried to sell promotional mints to all sorts of bussinesses), I found this ad in the newspaper for people interested in teaching English to adults. I had studied English my whole life in a bilingual school (Spanish-English), but that was through a traditional method in which the teacher would be the one speaking and I would only take notes and written tests; so, in theory, I knew English... but could I speak it? I was so desperate of making my own money (to pay University) that I applied and got an appointment for an interview.

I arrived punctually (something I learned from my father) to the address I was given and was met by a tall, British, very polished lady who led me to her office for the long expected interview. I was so nervous, so many things went through my head even before she started speaking... but the one thing that kept coming back again and again was the thought of me not being able to respond to any of her questions, I was going to make a fool of myself.

Well, surprisingly enough, it was only after a few minutes that I realized that I could speak English and I was not doing it badly at all... I got the job and 12 years later I am even able to write these posts for my blog. Of course, I have learned a lot more ever since and I have had the chance to practice everyday, but still everything I needed in terms of language for that interview came out without me being conscious of it.

So, what I always tell those people who say they have to start from the beginner level even though they studied the language before is, "believe me, if you woke up one morning and found that everyone spoke that second or third language only, the hidden box in your brain labeled "X language" will open and all those words and structures you once learned will come out streaming; just like what my grandmother used to say -everything you learn well you will remember forever-".

Friday, September 25, 2009

Is Work-Life Balance a Cultural Issue?

I read a very interesting article yesterday in which the author spoke about how much she hated having discussions about the balance between life and work. For her, there was no distinction between the two, she gave an example of how getting our of the office for a few days to go camping would renew her creativity and therefore she could come up with fresh, new, and great ideas.

That sounds very nice, however, how many of us are able to do that? How many of us can actually go to our boss and say, "I know there is a pile of things on my desk that need to be done, but I have to take 3 days off to come up with some great ideas for our meeting next week". I haven't worked for too many companies, but I have never seen anyone do that.
Is this a matter of culture? and in this case, not the culture of a specific country, but the culture of a company, or maybe even the industry.

If I think about Marketing or any area of Design, I can imagine people finding inspiration in unusual places...

Anyhow, going back to the work-life balance that I started talking about; back in Mexico it was not even something people would question, they could stay in the office until very late hours without being able to complain about not spending time with their families. When I came to Canada 4 years ago, I was suprised to see the office completely empty at 5:05pm. This for me was like being in heaven, however, after four years, I have met a lot of people who still complain about not having a well balanced life here. I have heard that in some countries in Europe people can take 1 and even 2 months of vacation. In Italy, for example (my hairdresser, an Italian immigrant, told me this) people work in the morning, then take a 2 hour break and go back to work for the rest of the day. She was saying how the place dies down during those two hours and all the businesses close!

So, I guess it is a matter of cultural differences in the end, it does make a difference where you live. But it is also a matter of what is important to you and how much priority you give to it in your life. If, for example, you want to be with your children everyday after school and help them do their homework, then you will have to look for a part time job even if that means making less money...

Then, I ask you, is work-life balance a matter of culture or an individual choice?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not Speaking a Second Language Can Kill Your Career

Louise Harel's (Leader of Vision Montreal party and candidate for Mayor of Montreal) case of not wanting to hold a debate in English with the other 2 candidates because she is not fluent enough is a very good example of how not speaking a second language can jeopardize your career. If you read some of the comments people have made about the CTV news article, it is very clear she will lose a lot of followers due to that incident.

Many people nowadays suffer from this same problem, and mostly in a bilingual country whose companies are increasing the amount of business they do abroad year after year. Whether it is Chinese, Spanish, German, etc. Canadian companies are requiring more and more to communicate in other languages when dealing with clients, head offices, afiliates, etc.

Don't let this happen to you, learn another language!

There is no Such Thing As Accent Reduction!

According to Dr. Joy Hirsch a professor of neuroscience at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre and senior author of a study published in the current issue of the journal Nature, "A second language acquired during the teenage years, which is later in developmental life, is represented in the brain in a separate location from the native language. But when bothy languages are learned at the same time early in life, they are represented in areas that have a considerable amount of overlap".

If this is the case, we have to think that all areas of the new language such as pronunciation and accent are stored in a separate "drawer" of the brain, so in my opinion, an adult whose second or third language is stored separately from his native language will always speak with an accent.

Now, he can practice his pronunciation and improve it, and he can be very successful in getting people to understand better what he says, but he will never sound as a native speaker.

I have seen in little kids whose parents speak to them in one language and they learn another one in school that they speak the first with an accent, even at that early age!

I think each one should be proud of their own heritage and not worry about speaking (English, because that is the most ocmmon case) with an accent. Living in such a multicultural city/country, I, personally, enjoy meeting people with different backgrounds and listening to different pronunciations, it enriches the language and its actual culture.

Gina Vazquez


Monday, September 21, 2009

Can you Learn a Language in your Iphone?

Technology has definitiely taken us to places we would have never imagined, but being able to learn a language using your iphone (smartphone)? I am sorry, but I don't buy it! There is an article that talks about a guy who designed a program to learn a language in a smartphone... read it and tell me what you think.

Are Canadian Companies Really Saying Yes to Diversity?

If you ask an immigrant who has just arrived in Canada why it is so hard to find a job, he will most likely say it is because all the employers ask for Canadian experience. I understand that for a hiring manager who has no idea about work practices in other countries it must feel very risky to trust that person's credentials, but is it really that, or is it the fear of hiring someone with different cultural behaviours that will take longer to adapt and therefore slow down productivity? Last year more than 250,000 people arrived in Canada as immigrants.

Employers need to accept the fact that these people are out there looking for a job and eager to join Canada's workforce. If the issue is actually the cultural differences, then why not look into Cross Cultural training and raise awareness in the organization to take advantage of the great talent coming into the country? Canadians are so open and interested to learn about different customs and traditions, doing this can even help the company become a better rated employer.

On the other hand, newcomers looking for a job need to be committed to their new country and prepare themselves for what lies ahead: they will also have to adapt to a new culture in the workplace, so a CC training is also something they can consider. Besides that, and most importantly, they must make sure their level of English and/or French is up to par to what is required in the office, e.i. participate in meetings, make presentations, talk to customers, discuss projects, etc. Plus, they must be aware that a certification will be required in some fields if they want their skills to be credited.

Coming to Canada is definitely not as easy as it sounds, we (being myself an immigrant) must be prepared to join a very competitive workforce and therefore work hard to prove our talents to a very demanding industry.

Here is an article that looks at diversity from a broader perspective; it is interesting to see how far the concept can be taken.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Great Plan for A Very Real Communication Problem

This is a good example of a situation in which a Canadian company faced the challenge of their employees not speaking English well enough to perform their job or grow within the organization. In this case the solution came from a government program, but there are a lot of options out there that can meet the changing needs of companies in different fields.