May 2, 2014

Have You Hired a Linguist Who Doesn’t Want to Communicate?

You’ve hired someone with superb second-language capabilities—even third or fourth, and are sure that this will fill an important gap in your organization’s resource base, whether it be a translation, interpretation, marketing, editing or customer and client direct communication hole to be plugged or otherwise value to be added.

Unfortunately, there may be a potentially hideous irony in that hire. In some cases, the more perfect those second-language skills are, the less inclined the linguist is to use them with people—any people, including, and often especially, native speakers of that language, clients not excepted.

It Happens All the Time

My claim is much more than a hunch, for I have seen this paradox unfold on multiple occasions with multiple bilinguals from multiple countries, including Japan, China, Korea, France, Romania, the Czech Republic and Ukraine.

Although the reasons vary among them, the bottom line is the same: For them, a superb command of the second language is a marker for resistance to using it—at least in direct communication with any native speaker, if ever.

For example, I cite a paradoxical, brilliantly written email I recently received, in virtually perfect, “deep” English from a very intelligent, studious medical science graduate, now working as an academic-English essay writer, telling me in acutely analytical and dazzling detail why she wanted nothing more to do with speakers of the second language she had so brilliantly mastered—myself being noted as the only exception to her otherwise firm rule.

Working with the language—no problem; working with people who speak it—forget it. (In this instance, the resistance runs even deeper, as described below, in being resistance to almost all social or direct interaction with people, period, a not uncommon correlate of having extremely “bookish” or introverted ways.)

In her case, the precipitating, aggravating factor was her resentment (to put it mildly) about what she regarded as unreasonable and demeaning business practices of her overseas, overseer employer—who had, at the time, a number of staff in revolt about such issues.

But even without such a provocative spark to ignite deep reluctance to engage native speakers of one’s second language, this kind of inverse correlation between solid linguistic skill and soft people skills and interest is not hard to find.

In some cases, it stems from personality, culture or world history, each of which, as a single factor, can explain both the high level of linguistic ability and low level of interest in communicating with it.

If the position you are filling requires not only a high level of second-language competence, but also a willingness, if not eagerness, to utilize it in direct communication with native speakers, you may unwittingly sabotage your language support services.

One variation on this theme is the linguist who has so diligently studied the second language and nothing else that no time has been left over to learn or reflect on anything interesting to say in it.

In this connection, I recall one truly obsessive ESL student I met who, having done virtually nothing but study English, spoke utterly perfect but absolutely boring English. In this case, the risk is not that of hiring a disengaged, socially awkward or hostile linguist, but of taking on a monumentally boring one, from a client/customer perspective.

Here are some scenarios that may lead to your hiring a reluctant linguist:

  • The second language was compulsory and imposed by a conquering army, e.g., mandatory Japanese during Japan’s occupation of Korea. There are still older Koreans whose skills in Japanese are easily matched by lingering resentment. In other countries, whether occupied or otherwise afflicted with an imposed language or clashing domestic linguistic groups, such as tribes in civil war, a similar fluency-with-resistance pattern can be expected among applicants from them, e.g., some Eastern Europeans I’ve met who have mastered Russian.
  • The acquired second language was literally a survival or resistance tool, the acquisition and perfection of which was undertaken to enhance the chances of physical, economic, psychological and political survival. Saboteurs, partisans, refugees and others who assiduously study an oppressor’s language in order to exploit it and overcome their oppression fall into this category.

Solo women travelers in patriarchal or otherwise rough countries may do as well. Learning how to say the equivalent of “Get lost!”, “Stop bothering me!”, “I need a lawyer”, “Help, police!”, “I didn’t pack that in my bag” or “The guards don’t inspect the laundry truck” can mark the beginning of such a sustained commitment to the language.

  • The second-language capability may have been acquired on and only because of the job; but because of psychological disengagement with the culture, the employee’s performance in interactions may be (subtly) perfunctory, however outstanding in terms of paper translation, copywriting, editing, etc.
  • The second language was educationally mandated only because of economic and other political realities, e.g., the triumph of English as a global business and research standard. However, in this instance, the highest levels of competence achieved are in fact less likely to correlate with reluctance to use it, such reluctance being more likely to be fueled by some other factor among those that follow in this list. Nonetheless, it should not be assumed that every diplomatic emissary, spy or intelligence analyst has any fondness for the culture and people whose language he’s mastered.
  • The linguist is sociophobic: When total absorption in a second language is one manifestation of broad and intense introversion, the combination of high linguistic competency and sociophobic resistance to interacting with native speakers, or, in the extreme, with anybody at all becomes more likely, if not altogether predictable.

I believe that my Asian friend, who is, in general, uncomfortable around people, despite having a razor-sharp mind and passable manners, falls into this category, in virtue of rarely, if ever, having friends who are close in both sense of “close”–namely, both valued and nearby.

  • Manifestation of extreme opportunity cost: One doesn’t become highly accomplished with a language without putting in the time—and lots of it. The irony is that if—as has been the case with my friend—that virtually all that time spent on acquiring a language is invested in dictionaries, grammar books, tapes and movies, it means time not spent with speakers of that language or with anyone else. This is an especially likely tradeoff and outcome when the favored learning mode is multi-media or primarily visual: books, newspapers, tapes, etc.

However, second-language learners who favor live conversation as a learning tool are far less likely to experience or display comparable resistance and reluctance or to have incurred such severe opportunity costs, viz., trading time with speakers for time with the language. If you have ever tried to initiate or sustain a conversation with anyone highlighting an English dictionary or grammar book and been rebuffed, there’s the real possibility that you encountered evidence of such opportunity costs, if not psychological resistance.

  • Spitefully learning a second language is another possibility, although one far less likely to be encountered, that may account for intense, yet adversarial commitment to learning a language, just to “show” the native speakers that it can be done, e.g., to those among them who believe that only geniuses can speak their language. What makes this motivation noteworthy is that it doesn’t have to be the exclusive motivation to take a toll on professional interactions. If it’s in the mix, it may seep into job communications.

Fortunately, you won’t need a Ph.D. In behavioral psychology to have some clue as to whether a candidate is an accomplished, but socially/culturally reluctant linguist. Asking the candidate questions about preferred learning modes—specifically purely independent vs. interactive learning—can be helpful, as can inquiring about personal motivations to learn the language.

Then, of course, there are the clues afforded by body language, degree of social ease, level of engagement in the interview and preferred applications of the language, e.g., in a team/client setting or remotely, as a translator or writer.

To boldly cut to the chase, you might consider asking, “Which do you enjoy more: time spent with the language or with (the) people (who speak it)?”

Who knows?—Your directness might be seen as refreshing.

At worst, it might mean you are one more person the linguist would prefer not to communicate with directly.

Read more in Business Communication

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).