Navigating Business in a Foreign Language


Headaches, fatigue, a coarse throat.

You may think I have the flu but no it’s just a case of using my brain each day.

I’ve developed myself somewhat of a niche. Japanese company based HR.

I love it. It’s what I know. It’s complex, filled with challenges and push back. And it’s performed in my second language.

When I was about 12 I caught my brother trying to write the character for Cherry Blossom. It was such a strange mixture of dashes and curves that I sat down and started to have a go myself. A year later I found myself in a Japanese class at my high school learning the first of three Japanese alphabets and singing about my body parts like a kindergartener.

It took me 7 years to finally set foot in Japan. By that stage, thanks to my Japanese teachers, I was already fluent in conversational Japanese. My university exchange was a year of exploration, hijinks and a dream come true.

A few years later I was back in Japan. This time to work.

I had worked on my exchange. I spent nights from 10pm to 6am folding and restocking displays in Abercrombie and Fitch’s depressingly dark and heavily perfumed Ginza shop floors. My knees ached, eyes strained and even an hour in the shower couldn’t rid me of the A&F stink. But the employees were like me. Foreigners. Willing to do anything for money. A never-ending stream of personal for the A&F overlords. As such, almost everyone spoke English or their own respective language.

I hadn’t experience the real ‘Working Japan’ until I was accepted on the JET Programme.

I had no interest in teaching so my intention was always to work as a Coordinator for International Relations. I had dreams of being in a tourism department, participating in radio shows, introducing my areas famous food and places to incoming VIPs. But instead I found myself in the Board of Education.

I was made ‘Assistant Language Teacher Coordinator’. It was my role to perform the HR function for 50 foreign language teacher assistances in the area. I had never done this before.

A few months in and I was still coming home from work only to collapse into my bed (read: sofa), brain blurred with all the terminology I had experienced that day.

I would write thousands of Kanji (Chinese characters) and listen to hundreds of reports and yet my head was still having trouble processing it all.

My colleagues were kind but not English speakers. Even the counties English teacher representative was unable to explain much to me.

I was terrified to speak lest I made a mistake and I was even more anxious about admitting when I didn’t understand what was being said.

It wasn’t until a few years later, working in Japanese companies in the UK that I started to relax.

I was performing my job, right? There was the odd incorrect particle in an email sent. There were occasional misspoken words. There were frequent looks of confusion on both mine and my colleagues side. But the message got across. We worked our way through it. And we achieved what we set out to do.

I spend 90% of my time in my current company working in Japanese. Almost all of our employees speak it and our customers are likewise from Japan. When I first joined I hadn’t spoken a complete Japanese sentence for around 2 years when I first stepped into my interview.

Having been told by the recruiter that the interview would be 20minutes, mixed between both Japanese and English, I felt comfortable with watching a few episodes of Terrace House and doing my best to stumble my way through any Japanese questions from there. How naïve of me.

The interview was an hour of only Japanese speaking. I managed to make it through (and clearly it was good enough) but it reminded me of just what I would be taking on. That flu-like feeling as your brain rejects your overheating on linguistic prowess.

But it improves. After a few weeks (maybe months) you brain stops rejecting and starts accepting your new use for it. The language in your brain switches over and thoughts start appearing either in both or in the new language. My brain often decides to delete English in order to more efficiently produce Japanese. Great for work but not so great for life in the UK. Shop keeps don’t know what a BINEARU BAGGU is.

There’s still terminology to learn. Grammar to perfect. Social norms to observe. But if there’s anything that will keep you afloat as a non-native speaker it’s accepting defeat and getting help. As I’ve said previously, it’s not a failure to say, ‘I don’t know’.