Managing Writers for Whom English is Their Second Language

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Gail Angel, Cognos, Inc.

What do Heart of Darkness, Waiting for Godot, and The Maine Massacre have in common? They all are written by internationally respected writers (Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, and Janwillem L. van de Wetering, respectively) in a language that was not the writer’s mother tongue. Samuel Beckett first wrote Waiting for Godot in French and then translated it into English. Conrad was Polish, Beckett was Irish, and van de Wetering is Dutch.

What’s my point? An individual can master another language to the point where they can use it with proficiency in a professional writing environment, be it creative writing (the hardest one to master for a non-native speaker) or other types of writing. This may contradict a common belief, especially in North America, that only native speakers can be good writers.

Okay, so you are a manager, you have ESL writers on your team, and you are reading this article. Some might argue you have a variety of things you need to be aware of: cultural differences, writing craftsmanship (grammatical choices, word choices), and communication imprecision. Some others might propose that the key attributes of strong technical writing are (in no particular order) research skills, problem-solving skills, analytical skills, organizational skills, technical knowledge of the product, technical knowledge of the authoring tools, and writing craftsmanship. Except for the last, all of these attributes are language-independent. Therefore, managing an ESL writer is not significantly different from managing a native English speaker.

When I was asked to write an article on this topic, my first thought was that I couldn’t do it because my personal experience in this area is limited. But then I realized that I had many resources available to me, and I think that my limited personal experience with ESL writers has been very successful. ESL writers have all worked with me in the same office, for the same firm. For a few years, I worked with a Hong Kong-born writer, and I have been working for six years off and on with a Polish-born writer. To supplement this personal experience, I interviewed a few other colleagues as I prepared this article:

  • Two Swedish technical writers (they live in Sweden, work in our Swedish office, but write in English). Also, one of these Swedes has many years experience as an English-Swedish translator. The manager of these Swedish writers is a Canadian.
  • A Polish-born technical writer. She has a degree in linguistics and thus has a natural love of languages in general. She also speaks Russian fairly well and studied German and Latin at advanced levels. She works here in our Ottawa office.
  • A colleague who once taught technical writing to multi-cultural first year university engineering students and who was our editor for many years.

In addition to my conversations with these people and the benefit of their reviews of this article, I received reviews from a manager of Documentation Localization and a documentation architect whose academic experience includes study in cross-cultural communications.

Key attributes

It is often said that the hardest part of a technical writer’s job is getting the information he or she needs and getting it when it is needed. Tracking issues, following up with SMEs, and learning the product are fundamental to technical writing. The ability to organize material in a logical and natural flow is also fundamental. These key attributes are not dependent on your ability to write in English in a manner suitable for publication.

My colleague, the ex-teacher of engineering students, explained to me that if you don’t have the organizational skills necessary to write in your first language, you’ll write poorly in any language. Bad technical writing is more often the result of an inability to organize the material well, and that can happen in any language. She felt that native English engineering students and ESL engineering students had an equally difficult time with the course. When ESL students tried to blame poor performance on English, she would ask them how their writing was in their native language. Most often, they admitted that they also had trouble writing in their own language. I have a story of my own. When I was studying English literature in university, I took a couple of programming courses as electives. (No, I didn’t know about technical writing at the time.) My professors noticed how my English essays were well structured, in large part, I think, because of those algorithms I had to write: define your inputs, define your outputs, and plot the path to get there. I naturally applied that structure to any document I wrote: program and essay alike. In my experience, good structure is language independent.

I believe that ESL technical writers can be successful if they are proficient in the key attributes I identified. However, can someone write competently when their first language isn’t English? Let’s look at that now.

Writing craftsmanship

The craft of writing is the ability to put words together in meaningful, easy-to-understand sentences that are effortless to read, understand, and apply. My Polish-born colleague said that editorial support was invaluable, not just to provide a greater degree of confidence to her work, but also as a coaching avenue. Support from her fellow team members means that she can take the time to be precise and choose her words carefully, and not feel rushed. She likes lots of examples to follow. In her opinion, the best way to introduce ESL writers to a new project is to ask them to update existing documentation. They will naturally read the surrounding text for context, style, approach, and tone.

Well-established guidelines are also helpful. These guidelines must cover word choice, jargon, and domain-specific terminology to help writers achieve the desired unified tone in a document. Guidelines should include advice like, “When a noun can also be used as a verb, you should use the noun form exclusively. Never use the noun as a verb.” The closer the prescriptive style is to controlled English, the easier it is for the ESL writer to follow. My Polish-born colleague comments that the ESL writer will likely use a simpler style in the first place and thus might require less editing for this reason. Furthermore, one Swedish writer observes that technical writing is easier than creative writing. Proposal writing and persuasive writing are more difficult.

The growing movement to write in plain English may suit many ESL writers. My colleagues pointed out that they naturally avoid complex sentence structures. They prefer to use one clear term; they don’t fight the urge to toss in a synonym for variety. They use plain words instead of Latinate ones, reducing ambiguity. If you use reading comprehension tools like Flesch-Kincaid, I am speculating that on average the grade level would be lower for an ESL writer than a native English writer. Because ESL writers don’t struggle in these areas, it’s possible that some ESL writers are better suited to technical writing than native English speakers.

A recent thread on ESL technical writing concluded that editorial support is key. Editing ESL work isn’t just a matter of grammar and vocabulary. Often, mistakes such as spelling may really be mistakes of common usage. The grammar may be correct, but “we just don’t say it that way.” In situations where an ESL writer learned English in a British environment, those writers, when working in North America, may have other adjustments to make. To overcome these challenges, some ESL writers may need a little more editing time in the schedule at first. Conversely, some editors on the thread noted that, in their experience, ESL writers are better writers because they work hard to compensate. My Polish-born colleague agrees with that.

Cultural differences

Just as obvious cultural differences exist between countries, there are differences within countries, such as between the American north and south. Are these differences part of the ESL experience, or are they normal characteristics of a team that any manager needs to notice? Sometimes differences can result in misunderstandings. However, without a common language, those differences may be harder to identify and explain. A well-known (and easy-to-read) book, Beyond Culture by Edward T. Hall, is mandatory reading in many university courses. This book is decades old now, but it is still used as a hallmark source to address cultural differences. Arguably, the difference that most affects business is the way different cultures manage the concept of time. Yet, business transactions the world over have deadlines and contracts. Today, working with a translation firm in Europe will be largely the same experience as working with a translation firm in the US.

From our increasingly global perspective, we demonstrate a growing awareness of cultural differences. This awareness leads to an understanding of how these differences can be positive learning experiences that enrich our lives. My Swedish and British colleagues tell me that North Americans are wordier, especially in emails. My colleagues had to become accustomed to a wordier style and have adopted a similar style when communicating with North American colleagues. My Swedish colleagues told me about the need to re-read emails to make sure they understood the point of the messages; otherwise, it could be lost to them. Of course, they readily admit that they might be generalizing too much about North Americans! While cultural differences exist, individuals in the culture still have their own personal styles.

Communication imprecision

Misunderstandings can happen all the time, even within English cultures. Here’s an example. Many years ago I was enrolled in a technical writing course here in Canada. The instructor was from the United States and had flown in to teach the course. When it came time for a break, she said: “Let’s take a break and reconvene at a quarter of eleven.” I didn’t know what she meant. I thought to myself, “Well, a quarter is 15 minutes. The eleventh hour ends at 11:59, so a quarter of the eleventh hour must mean 11 o’clock plus 15 minutes, and that would be 11:15.” But because it was 10:30, it seemed like a really long break. So I raised my hand and asked. “Excuse me, but do you mean 10:45 or 11:15?” She was rather perplexed and surprised at my question, and said “10:45.” When I tried to explain how I understood her phrasing to mean 11:15, she didn’t understand me. I had never heard that phrase “a quarter of” before. Everyone I knew would say “a quarter to the hour” or “a quarter after the hour”, or better yet, 11:15! When I told this story many years later to an American, he said that he didn’t use the phrase “a quarter of” either. I’ve since learned that it’s used in the Canadian Maritimes. So apparently this is a regional difference. Imagine the ESL writer who thinks they’ve learned some colloquialisms only to discover that they vary depending on what part of the country someone is from! I know of many more examples of regional differences in English across Canada. The point is that we may not know when we are being misunderstood, and as managers, it’s our responsibility to work harder to ensure our communications are successful.

Our Swedish writers note that ESL writers will take the time they need to think about word choice as they write. However, through conversation and as the work day goes on, fatigue sets in, and speaking in English becomes more difficult for an ESL writer. This difficulty is compounded when time zones are working against the team. European afternoons are timed with North American mornings. The conversation is challenging when the ESL writer is feeling rushed or uncertain of nuances in word choice. As a manager, you can look for these dynamics and be more supportive and relaxed with the ESL writers. If the ESL writers are significantly outnumbered on your team, then your team may need to slow down their conversations. Also, try not to draw conclusions about the personality of an ESL writer too quickly; some writers may appear to be shy or introverted, when in their native language they might be more gregarious.

Conclusion

There are good and bad technical writers among us who are native English speakers and are well educated. There are wonderfully accomplished technical writers, too, for whom English is not a first language.

As a manager, if you have an ESL writer on your team, you need to manage them the same as you would any other writer: develop their abilities, encourage professional development, and provide editorial support as evidence requires. Stay attuned to how cultural differences may impact the communication style of your team, foster team spirit, and keep communications clear and effective.

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