What It’s Like To Work In English In A Non English-Speaking Country
Working as a native English speaker in a non-Anglophone country — and the interesting experiences it throws up
Six years ago, I set out on a flight from Cork, Ireland to begin a new life in Israel.
My career, since then, has taken me on a circuitous route to where I currently stand.
I briefly avoided getting sucked into a couple of scams (yes, really); worked at the Jerusalem office of an international PR firm; marketed an IoT technology solution around the world; and launched, and grew, an independent marketing consultancy.
I’ve worked, on salary, at Israeli companies, Irish companies, and with clients from more than 10 countries around the world — among them places as diverse as Hong Kong, Denmark, and my native Ireland.
Fun fact: A lot of work within Israel’s high tech sector — the nucleus of its economy — gets done in English. As a general rule, the technology sector, and the economy, is grossly focused on exports.
It’s probably fair to say, in fact, that the majority of sales and marketing roles put knowledge of Hebrew as a distant secondary requirement. There are some domestic sales roles, sure, but most startups — disproportionately, the major employers here — are focused internationally.
As an aspiring journalist turned marketing communications professional turned freelance technical marketing writer turned marketing consultant (I told you it was circuitous), my work also essentially has to be done in English.
I strive valiantly to improve my Hebrew (I would describe it as conversational with a smattering of missing vocab; although I’ve noticed that more brash expats use the word ‘fluent’ very liberally).
But I can’t envision ever being able to do what I do — a lot of writing work and providing advice— in Hebrew. It’s a hard language (typically, Hebrew is placed one notch up from Romance languages in language difficulty scales; but below Arabic).
My day-to-day therefore runs in both languages — split in two by errands, work, and whatever else life produces on any given day.
I pay my monthly taxes, and handle administration, entirely in Hebrew (my accounting platform doesn’t even have an English user interface). But the work is mostly done through English.
I watch Hebrew-language television almost daily and make small talk with the falafel guy through Hebrew. But with most of my clients — almost none of whom are based in Israel — I communicate in English.
A few observations and thoughts:
You’ll Risk Being Hired For Your Language — And Not Your Actual Skills
A disproportionate amount of job vacancies published in Israel emphasize heavily — towards the very top of the job spec — that the company is seeking a “native English speaker.” I still find this somewhat amusing: as if “natives” are in short supply in Israel or some kind of prized specimen.
My gut reaction would be to advise anybody to avoid these jobs. All of them.
As a professional, you want to ideally differentiate yourself on much higher ground than just the fact that you can communicate in your mother tongue.
But if you’re looking for work in marketing — or anything writing-related — this would mean cutting out an enormous chunk of the market, perhaps the majority of it. And most of us need to figure out some way to make a livelihood.
If this isn’t an exclusion criterion, then you can at least triage prospects by how much emphasis is placed on your language and how much emphasis is placed on what else you can bring to the table.
Focus on the latter.
As you spend time at a Hebrew-speaking workspace, your Hebrew will improve vastly, even if much of your work, or even all of it, is conducted through English.
Your native English status should hopefully give way to what you can do with that native English. This is what veteran immigrants who broke through the invisible linguistic glass ceiling (see below) had to say about their successes.
You May Unfortunately Find That The English Speaking Department Is A (Comfortable) Professional Dead End
Again, sorry to be all negative. False positivity has never been my thing.
When it comes to working as an English speaker in foreign climes, I’m actually more optimistic than ever. And that’s because remote work is exploding which gives us the opportunity to work with any company that’s willing to hire us.
But equally it would be a pity to not share some of my experience to try tell you the dangers you may wish to avert.
One of them is this:
Be wary of working in the English-speaking parts of organizations — in Israel that would very commonly be sales and marketing. Because if you do, you may find that there are almost no rungs to climb professionally.
This is a point of enormous disagreement between immigrants. I’ve met plenty of immigrants in Israel who insist that you “don’t need Hebrew” to work here. I think that’s lunacy: you may find some jobs that avail of your native language, but it’s foolhardy to rely upon that.
The ubiquity of English-speaking marketing roles in English disguises a trend that has, for the past few years, deterred me from seeking out in-house positions here: marketing roles, or at least those that rely heavily on native level English, tend to be regraded as entry level stepping stones towards something bigger.
It makes total sense. If the marketing department consists of five English speakers focused on communicating with the US, that doesn’t leave much room for an ambitious ladder-climber to wiggle through and advance professionally.
But where does that leave somebody who wants to make a career in English-language journalism or content marketing?
You want the bitter conclusion to this point?
Non-English-speaking countries aren’t the best places to excel in these kind of roles. The more English-dependent your profession is, the more you risk being hired for your language, and not in spite of it, any time you venture beyond the Anglosphere. I’ve grown more professionally through my freelance engagements with American clients than with my in-house roles in Israel.
Learners Will Correct Your English And You’ll See An Abundance Of Pidgin Communication
English-speaking expat writers in Israel like to joke about a familiar if infuriating dynamic: an Israeli client insisting that their incorrect formulation (in English) is the correct one.
Many an immigrant has had to bite their tongue while making the requested “correction” — or watched as their legitimate corrections were repeatedly ignored and the brand news website went live … replete with obviously botched English.
Browsing through my LinkedIn feed, I commonly witness second degree connections based in Israel trying to do their best take at corporate American English but failing horribly to grasp the nuances.
One major disadvantage that nobody warns you about:
If you’re fastidious about grammar then you may be in store for witnessing a whole trove of internal communications that take place in enforced English (this is a common policy). But being written by students of the language who make some characteristic mistakes.
As a student of Hebrew, I’m painfully aware of how difficult communicating in a second language is.
Most Israelis’ grasp of English probably easily outshines my knowledge of their language. When I post on Hebrew-speaking forums, I drive myself crazy with my errors, which are instantly flagged by Google spell check’s red line.
It isn’t easy. But as a native speaker working with ESL colleagues in professional contexts that sometimes enforce the use of English … it can at times feel a little strange.
Your Grasp On Your Mother Tongue May Slowly Loosen Until The Natives Overtake You!
Linguistic attrition is a fascinating phenomenon.
Language attrition - Wikipedia
Language attrition is the process of losing a native or first language. This process is generally caused by both…
It’s also one that can be readily observed in most expat environments.
Not every speaker acquiring a second language loses proficiency in their first one. But when it happens… it really happens.
You may watch in dismay as your native-speaking colleague — or you! — begin slipping in your compatriots’ favorite “isms” in English.
(One of the most common ones made by native Hebrew speakers is to use the “or … or” construction in English rather than “either … or”. Example: “or we second out the press release, or we can publish a blog.”)
Working as an English speaker in a non-Anglophone country through English can be a mixed bag — not to mention an unusual experience at times, and sometimes also a frustrating one.
The best advice I can give is to focus on professional opportunity that doesn’t take advantage of your language. These days, opportunities are widening. The adoption of remote work can accelerate this process.
If you’re fluent enough to be professionally proficient in the local vernacular, then seek out positions that simply take advantage of your skillset and allow yourself time to continuously improve in your target language.
The most difficult professions to map this way are probably those that tend to be done in English anyway.
Don’t be surprised to find a colleague attempting to force incorrect English into your work. Although you may need to be a bit aggressive in your unexpected role as the company’s “language police.”