Lack of language command doesn’t have to be an impediment to presenting

As someone who is a child of immigrants, I understand and appreciate the travails of anyone who is new to this country and struggles with the English language. Indeed, English can be a very screwy language, with a plethora of archaic rules such as “i before e” and so on. I remember my Korean mother telling me about how Korean is grammatically perfect; every rule is followed to the letter (no pun intended), and there is no “i before e” or anything like that. I got a better idea of this when I tried to teach myself Korean. (I’ll confess that I’ve gotten busy, and I haven’t kept on top of this as I’d like. I’ll have to pick this up again at some point.)

I’ve learned about the structure of the Korean language, but I have not learned enough to be able to carry a conversation or read signs. As such, I have absolutely no command of the language. So I respect anyone who is not a native English speaker, but learns enough to be able to come to this country and be able to have a comprehensible conversation. That ability requires a great deal of work and practice, and to be able to go to a foreign country and speak the language of its inhabitants is a tremendous achievement.

That said, a common statement among my friends and colleagues from foreign countries is that because English is not their native language, it is an impediment for them to do technical (or any) presentations. More often than not, it isn’t external feedback or reactions that keep them from presenting, but rather a self-perception that because they aren’t native English speakers, they aren’t able to present technical concepts to English speakers.

To those people, I want to tell them (hence, the reason for this ‘blog article): nothing can be farther from the truth. On the contrary, I fully encourage you to present.

Now, I was born and raised in New York State. English is my native language. I like to think that I have a pretty good command of the language, and I will confess to being a bit of a grammar snob (I’ll often joke that I’m one of those people who’s silently correcting your grammar!). Granted, I don’t pretend to be perfect, but I think I can hold my own. I will often say (and I do often say this in my presentations) that command of your native language makes it easier to present concepts when it comes to technical communication.

However, while language command is helpful for presenting topics, it isn’t a requirement. Some of the best speakers I’ve met on the SQL Saturday circuit have been people whose first language is not English. The list includes some very good friends of mine whom I’ve met through SQL Saturday, including Slava Murygin, Taiob Ali, Michelle Gutzait, Paresh Motiwala, Cecelia Brusatori, and Thomas Grohser, among others. They are all excellent speakers whom I highly recommend, and the fact that they speak with accents that may be foreign to many Americans doesn’t keep them from presenting technical topics or being group leaders.

Even if you’re an English speaker who never got the hang of diagramming sentences or knowing the difference between their, they’re, and there, it should not deter you from presenting important topics. And if you are self-aware about your lack of language command, don’t be afraid to ask for help or feedback from someone who does have a good grasp of language.

So if you have a topic to present, but you’re not a native speaker, go ahead and present, anyway! If your topic is profound, interesting, important, etc., the material will often speak for itself. Lack of language command is not an impediment for presenting.

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