Do I Need To Be “Fluent”?

Do I Need To Be Fluent? Kasia featured in Schoolcraft College's International Agenda publication

One of the greatest misconceptions that I run into while supporting Japanese-speaking job seekers and global companies that need bilingual staff relates to the topic of “fluency.”

If you are also using the JLPT to hire, check out “Stop Interviewing & Hiring Based Solely on the JLPT.”

Kasia featured in Schoolcraft College's International Agenda publication

This article was featured in Schoolcraft College’s International Agenda publication: “Creating Bilingual Careers For Those Not Yet ‘Fluent’” (Fall 2020)

The job seekers with whom I work are students, graduates and JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program) alumni, and most of them have a great foundation in Japanese. Although each person has different proficiency levels, most have a good understanding of the 3 alphabets (hiragana, katakana, and kanji), the usage of honorifics to show respect, and cultural norms like bowing and acting humbly.

Everyone Needs To Start Somewhere

Unfortunately, when such job seekers search for jobs in which they can utilize their language skills, they run into one major roadblock: the job ads specify that bilingual fluency is required. Seeing that requirement prevents them from applying because many do not feel they are fluent yet. In fact, many Japanophiles are overheard to say that they might not ever feel like they are fluent due to the language’s intricacies, and that statement can often stem from the Japanese cultural sense of being humble that is now ingrained in their non-Japanese minds.

On the other hand, many companies and organizations needing bilingual talent and using terms as “fluent” in their job ads can find themselves struggling to fill those roles. Although they might assume that a language level close to that of a professional translator is what they need, at times they could actually use someone who is less than fluent but who is comfortably proficient in that foreign language.

I respect professional interpreters/translators very highly. They are beyond excellent at what they do, and they are in high demand for many, if not most, languages. In this article I will instead introduce the idea of utilizing “unofficial” interpreters and translators because a) many people need to realize that there are varying proficiency levels, and b) we can help fill the demand for bilingual talent with an untapped resource that just needs only an opportunity and a little bit of time to learn the terminology. Lastly, although this article will take a Japanese spin, this concept surely applies to other languages as well.

Using My “Non-Fluent” Japanese Skills In A Career

I started my company, Ikigai Connections, because I fought the “fluent” requirement on job ads my entire adult life, and now I want to share my tips on how I succeeded. I was intent on finding jobs where I could use my language skills, and my stubbornness allowed me to not give up until I did so.

I’m a trilingual American who spent 8 years in Japan, including high school, college, graduate school, and my professional career. I earned my Bachelor’s degree from Boston University and my Master’s from Tokyo’s Ochanomizu University. My career utilizing Japanese language and cultural skills began in 2003 with concert promotion, and later moved to interpreting/translating, electronics and automotive. I was able to do this while living in Japan, Poland, Italy and the US. Now I share my tips with my 2,000+ global followers who want to do the same!

I share my message via blogging, speaking, training, and my online job board to help job seekers discover jobs that utilize their Japanese skills. Further, I help globally-minded employers that understand the benefits of these bilingual/bicultural employees, and assist them with the search and training.

It is important to note that I am not a certified interpreter nor translator – however, my language skills were usable and helpful in all the roles I fulfilled. I was fortunate to work with employers that knew they needed the communication gaps to be closed, regardless of how I did it. I succeeded at it by having good relationships with co-workers, understanding their need, and wanting to help – even if my grammar wasn’t perfect and I was working out of my comfort zone. Being a perfectionist, it hurt my ego to not be “fluent” in a professional capacity – but that is exactly how experience is gained.

What Does “Fluent” Mean Anyway?

The definition of fluent is to be “able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately.” However, I will always say that imperfect language skills are still important, if not vital, to businesses, organizations, and personal relationships in general.

When it comes to Japanese, many people wonder if becoming fluent is even possible. It’s not an easy language with the different alphabets and honorifics. The definition of “fluent” varies greatly, and the relevant skills vary depending on the context: speaking, listening, reading, or writing.

I prefer to change the question, and use terms different from simply the blanket term “fluent.” We should clarify whether we are at basic, intermediate, advanced or native levels in each of the four categories of speaking, listening, reading and writing. With Japanese, you can potentially move from basic to intermediate at around the 3rd or 4th year of college Japanese, and then you can enter the advanced category once you start using Japanese professionally in a regular manner.

Introducing “Unofficial” Interpreting / Translating

An “unofficial” interpreter or translator is someone who is beginning their language career, is not certified, and/or has not gone to interpreting/translating school, but has a solid understanding of a foreign language to support with linguistic communication. Their exact title does not have to be related to interpreting or translating; instead, it might be something like “Bilingual Administrative Assistant” or “Japanese OEM Project Manager” where they use both languages to fulfill their job responsibilities.
It should also be noted that not every professional interpreter or translator needs to be certified or have gone to interpreting/translating school to become successful at their job. Many times, the professionals were able to taste-test the industry by fulfilling “unofficial” interpreting/translating roles, and eventually became experts at their subject matter due to on-the-job training.

The required level of proficiency will depend on the language, the topic of the material that needs to be translated, and the importance of being precise. Let’s consider some concrete examples.

If an important business deal reaches the last stage of negotiations, it would not be appropriate to use an unofficial interpreter. (Instead, they can sit and observe the professional interpreter for training purposes.)

An internal document that needs to be summarized and won’t be shared outside of the company can be assigned to an unofficial translator. They should read the document to gain a basic understanding, provide a summary of what it is about, and be ready to answer questions. Some documents don’t even need to be fully translated, thus saving time and money.

Email correspondence between two countries can be a source of misunderstanding, and the person who understands both languages can be included on all emails. Not only can they help with summaries in both languages and clarifying any miscommunication, they can also become a part of that project with their own tasks.

What about video conferencing support? Although having a professional interpreter may be the best option, an alternative is to involve an unofficial interpreter who knows the topic at hand and can help communicate it. The longer you work with people on the same project, the more you understand each other, even if you’re not 100% articulate. It’s important to note that the unofficial interpreters on either side should be directly involved in the day-to-day communication of the project at hand so they gain a deeper understanding of it.

Outside of interpreting and translating, linguistically capable staff can help visitors feel at home, and can give advice to fellow employees when traveling overseas. This can be a big help when dealing with transportation, travel arrangements, food and weather preparation, and top cultural tips to keep in mind so as not to offend the other side.

“Unofficial” Interpreters / Translators Fulfill A Need

Why do companies need such interpreters/translators? Essentially, in order to bridge the cultural gap that these firms face when interacting with people from unfamiliar cultures:

  1. Unofficial interpreters/translators become a bridge between cultures to facilitate correspondence and internal and external relationships. They improve communication, even if they’re not perfectly “fluent.”
  2. They can understand key business concepts in both cultures. As many linguists know, sometimes it’s not the words, but the actions, that speak louder. Sometimes just this understanding can help bridge gaps that arise in business meetings.
  3. They relish the opportunity to utilize their language and cultural skills in a career, and the will be willing to work hard.

Solutions To Bridge This Gap

Based on the knowledge and experience that I have summarized above, I can offer the following advice as solutions to bridge this gap:

Job seekers: Apply to companies that need bilingual talent and convince them to give you a try. Ask them what kind of bilingual support they need, and come ready with the list of suggestions you now have. For example, “Your job ad says ‘fluent’ but here is what I can do….” Explain that you have mastered the language basics, and convince them to give you 1-2 months to learn their unique industry terminology. Language is a growing, learning thing.

Teachers: Introduce your students to the idea that they can combine their language skills with a career, even if the job ads seem scary or don’t exist. In this global economy, having foreign language skills will no doubt continue to be important in supporting any industry and job function that works internationally.

Employers: Consider creating entry-level opportunities to support your bilingual business endeavors. Even if the candidate does not know your particular terminology, give them a chance to learn it – their desire to learn may impress you!

In Conclusion

My intention in this article was to:

  1. give language-learners the confidence to move forward with their career track regardless of their language level,
  2. ask teachers to inspire their language-learners to be creative when discovering linguistic career opportunities, and
  3. encourage employers and organization leaders to use staff that can be a great linguistic support and can eventually grow into the fully fluent/bilingual role.

I hope I have provided some ideas for how to combine linguistic skills in the professional world! I would be happy to continue this discussion, so please reach out to me here.

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