enginners in interviews are special

 

L2 interviews – why are engineers a special case?

EN11 24-04-2016    Author: Philip Wells
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 cards.
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 cards.
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.

All 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.

As an 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 smart.


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.
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.


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 predictable.

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 corrected.

So the advice is:
1.  Practice with somebody proficient enough in both the language and engineering to identify the types of structures essential to you.
2.  Record your practice sessions on video if you can. Watch the videos afterwards, it's worth all the pain. 
3. 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.

And 4., 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 their achievements.

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 turned 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.
   

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