The engineering profession has become global, and
second-language (L2) job offers are becoming
increasingly frequent, and in some sectors, the
norm. But as an engineer, you hold several strong
Engineering students often feel that their
courses are light in communication and interpersonal
skills. Are these more difficult for engineers?
Being an engineer limits you to the same constraints
as all specialized professionals: you don’t just
speak your acquired languages, but in addition, a
language specifically adapted to your expertise.
A scene which can be witnessed every summer, and
a linguistic phenomenon worthy of study, takes place
in motorway service car parks across Europe. You may
have observed it yourself, the huddles of
Harley-Davidson owners from across the Union,
casually talking over their machines without the
apparent need for a common language.
right, this could be a myth put about by HD-owners,
but the principle is that a common subject-matter is
about half-way to having a common language, because
the subject, with its taxonomy of terms and
relationships, is itself a language.
engineer, you’re skilled in describing dynamic
processes in your own language, or speaking about
effects and their degree, or hypotheses. But in a
second language, if you’re less than fluent, trying
to maintain the quality of your native fluency often
results in a frustration and failure. You cannot
simultaneously focus on a complex subject and juggle
grammatical rules: as soon as it starts to get
interesting, you are more or less forced to fall
back on reflexes. Unlike grammar, reflexes can only
be learned over time, which in most short-term
interview situations, means that you’re limited to
those in your possession.
While you can’t
altogether eliminate the imperfections in your
reflexes, you can make them much less significant by
adapting your diction and style of speech, which is
more difficult than it sounds. Of course you’ll be
tempted to find the right word, or to risk a more
complex construction, and both will result in
interruptions in the flow of your speech, which will
do nothing for your confidence. But it’s an acquired
discipline, because speaking fluidly doesn’t just
involve avoiding complex phrases, but knowing how to
use simple ones. Which, simply stated, means talking
We are to
such an extent defined by our style of
speech that any concession is suffered
as a loss of identity.
Engineers who are well-equipped in
communication skills do this in their own language
anyway, which means that they will already be
skilled at narration and economy of speech. This may
be because it reflects their professional thinking:
syntax is pure design, and the efficiency of your
speech is the most direct reflection of your
thinking. Communication skills are highly
transferable in a second-language interview context.
Engineers also have the edge in the form of their
acquired language, their technical vocabulary. In
engineering, this vocabulary is often modern with
identical or related words, and where this is not
the case, at least the knowledge that these
technical terms have one-for-one translations, which
is far from true in other areas of the language.
It’s in the interpersonal aspects of
communication that things get more difficult.
Drawing out subtleties requires an expressive range.
You may be describing a project which fell victim to
budget cuts, and which was subsequently re-launched
with an improved product. You might talk about the
evolution of prototypes and technical improvements,
or the collaborative challenges facing the team
involved in making those improvements, or the
management challenges to be overcome by the person
trying to keep the team motivated and the project
alive. The relative mix of impersonal and personal
elements says everything about your values, about
your awareness of others, and in career terms, it’s
a maker or a breaker.
This awareness does
not have to be described so much as signaled in the
description. These signals may be very brief, but they will speak
volumes about you.
relative mix of impersonal and personal
elements says everything about your
values, about your awareness of others,
and in career terms, it’s a maker or a
To engineers for whom
form follows function, the ability to speak with
economy may seem natural. The fact remains that it’s
a hard act to pull off for most people, and for
reasons that, to most of us, are just off the radar.
People are to such an extent defined by their style
of speech that any concession is suffered as a loss
of identity. But here, engineers have another vital
advantage: their professional dialect is also a way
of thinking which it is relatively easy to
translate. By getting the signals right, you are in
a position to answer the key interview question,
which is an unspoken one: not, “what kind of an
engineer are you ?”, so much as, “who are you?”, and
“how will you interact with co-workers and the
company when hired?”, and as such, entirely
Many interviewers use assessment
techniques to see how a candidate handles a
demanding task; an engineering candidate operating
in a second language and managing their constraints
is a considerable behavioural demand.
It takes a
certain amount of grit to learn a second language; a
second-language engineering candidate isn’t an
engineering candidate with limited communication
skills, but a candidate who is ideally positioned to
demonstrate determination and self-assurance.
Communication skills, as opposed to linguistic
skills, are much more robust, and will survive all
the concessions to speaking style. Good
communication skills are something you have learned
and rehearsed in your mother tongue, and part of
your skill-set. If you are already in possession of
professional vocabulary and the basic structures of
the language, the linguistic shortcomings are highly
focused, and related to syntax, and this can be
So the advice is:
Practice with somebody proficient enough in both the
language and engineering to identify the types of
structures essential to you.
your practice sessions on video if you can. Watch
the videos afterwards, it's worth all the pain.
Learn reflexes rather than theory, especially if
time is short, which means working from examples,
and if possible by ear. Auditory memory appears to
be much more effective than visual memory in
learning reflexes, and probably because this is the
way we learned our first languages.
probably the most important: think
about the way your position as a second-language
candidate positively affects your profile. Very few
professions offer as much opportunity to innovate
and to implement advances as does engineering; as a
working engineer, you are a specialist in what has
become a global profession which today, addresses
global needs. Your acquisition of another language
testifies to your motivation to serve this context.
Engineers, who generally don’t like imprecision,
attach more importance to their shortcomings than
This results in a negative bias
in perception, and an underestimation the positive
impact of their situation: an L2 candidate
communicating with an interviewer in the
interviewer’s first language is the one who has come
by the longest road and a pioneer. To be a
second-language interview candidate takes attitude
as much as application, and these are the key
qualities which will give credibility when you come
to speak about your qualities and skills you can
bring to the company.
Your situation can be
to advantage in a second way, which in multicultural
contexts is just as important, because knowledge of
languages gives you a broader cultural perspective,
and the ability to handle work relationships which
are more complex than in monocultural firms.
So, in your position as an L2 engineer,
you will not only find that a number of conditions
for a successful interview performance are already
in place, but that it is really a heaven-sent
opportunity to present your professional profile in
a uniquely credible way.