by Simon Ager
The scene is the reception of a busy office, a phone rings, one of the recptionists answers:
Receptionist: "Hello, Acme Widgets, Brenda speaking."
Caller: "Buenos dias. Señor Fernandez aquí. Quería hablar con el Señor Jones."
Receptionist: "I'm sorry sir, I don't understand. Do you speak English?"
Caller: "Lo siento, sólo hablo español. ¿Hay alguien allí que hable español?"
Receptionist: "Could you please hold for a moment?" (to colleague): "I've got someone on the phone here babbling in some foreign lingo, maybe Spanish. Does anyone here speak Spanish?"
Colleague: "Hold on, let me think ... one of the guys in accounts speaks a bit, but he's off today."
Receptionist: "Oh well, there's not much we can do then. Sir? Sir? He's gone. I wonder what he wanted."
If you work for an organisation with customers or clients who speak languages other than English (LOTE), it's quite likely that they'll feel more comfortable communicating with you in their own language, if that option is available to them. Some of them might have limited or no knowledge of English, which could be a problem if you don't speak their language, as in the scenario above.
Imagine our hypothetical receptionist was spurred to go to Spanish classes after a number of similar conversations. The next time Señor Fernandez called, if he hadn't decided to take his business elsewhere, he would probably get to speak to Mr Jones.
Does this sound a bit far-fetched? Don't most people speak English these days? Well, many people do speak English, at least to some extent, and many more don't. Learning other languages will certainly help in your work, and could lead to promotions, pay rises and other opportunities.
How much of a language do you need to learn? If you work in reception, it would be very useful to have a stock of greetings and some frequently-used telephone phrases in a number of languages so that you can greet foreign-speaking callers and put them through to the right person.
If you become fluent in another language, you would also be able to communicate effectively with clients and customers, to put them through to the appropriate colleagues, and to take messages from them when necesssary.
Another useful strategy for handling foreign-speaking callers would be to compile a list of the languages known within your organisation, including details of which language skills (understanding, speaking, reading and/or writing) people have.
When I first started my current job, the monoglot receptionists frequently asked my boss, a fluent Spanish speaker, to talk to Spanish-speaking clients and customers, much to his annoyance as they usually wanted to talk about something unrelated to his work. Fast forwarding quite a few years, we find bilingual receptionists and a number of multilingual sales teams.
Simon Ager is web developer who specialises in multilingual websites. He speaks eight languages, and has some knowledge of twelve others. He is also author of Omniglot.