Today at DNSimple, people of five different nationalities (French, Spanish, Italian, Canadian, and American) work together to provide a domain management service that makes our customers' lives easier. Twelve people, from five different countries, speaking four different languages, need to settle on one language to make communication easy and effective.
Since the beginning of the company that language has been English, which as everybody knows is the lingua franca of this era. This makes sense for multiple reasons, including that most programming languages are designed to be written in English, and being a software company means we would be coding in English.
Learning English, my own story.
I started to learn English at six years old. Back in 1986 my parents were already concerned that English was a vital skill for a good curriculum. At that time, English was not obligatory in Spanish education until you were ten years old, so my parents believed that knowing English could theoretically give me an edge above other students, and this is precisely what happened. From age 6 until age 14 I started to repeat the same basic English courses, first with a private teacher, then at school. At that time the level of the class was so low that I got the bests marks every year without studying—but I never went beyond that level.
In 1994 I began attending high school in a new place, which was a private school that included a primary school. It was a disaster. The kids there had been improving their English since they were six years old (like me), but unlike me they hadn't been doing the same basic courses all over again, so I started to fail every exam, one after another. English was one of my biggest challenges in high school.
Still, country-wide English level at that time was dismal compared with the level I had after all that pain in high school, so I passed the university access exams with a good mark. Still, the programs at that time did not require having spoken English, you just needed to know how to write it properly.
My first contact with spoken English came four years after that. Back then, I had a relationship with a half Spanish, half Irish girl, and we visited Ireland a couple of times. This is when I really started speaking English. I had to impress her friends, I enjoyed the challenge, and it was a funny way to improve.
More or less at the same time I caught the Linux fever and I gradually moved from reading Spanish technology news and documentation websites to their English equivalents (Hello Slashdot!). The news in English was more thorough and came before the Spanish versions, the documentation was more complete, and the community was bigger (but the Americans seemed a bit strange to me).
The next step on this ladder came after spending a summer in Berlin 7 years ago. I had to communicate, and most of the young people there know the language. After this point I was more or less confident in speaking English without having to stop to think through the next phrase.
In summary, it took me a lot of time to get to a decent level with spoken English, because the English level in Spain was low (and still is) when I was learning the language. Plus, I did not have a comprehensive, gradual way of learning. Still, I believe I have a good English proficiency when compared with many Spaniards.
Join DNSimple, new idiomatic challenges ahead
I joined DNSimple 2 and a half years ago. Since our first meeting as a team (I'm employee number four), it was clear that my English needed to improve. Good English is taken for granted at the company.
The downsides of remote life
Working in a remote company means that we don't see each other every day, in our triannual meetings there has always been some motivation from some of my colleagues to stand out from the rest by through their charm and sense of humor; of course this is something akin to human relationships. But it usually plays to my disadvantage because I am neither a super funny, joking person, nor do I command the language enough to the point where I can be 100% myself. Fortunately Anthony and Laetitia have a deep understanding of this and the resulting company culture is: "accepting everyone as they are". It took me a long while to get myself known a bit, I always have felt supported here, but it is a disadvantage nonetheless.
Another downside of remote working is living in Spain: a country where I don't get to practice English every day. I have a couple of friends, one American, one English, and I speak with them every week. But still, it takes me a bit to get up to speed during our company summits. I could move to another country, but this is something you don't do solely to improve your language, usually you make the tasks of moving to a new place for several reasons. Instead, I may start receiving English lessons again.
Meetings can be difficult
On the same level of importance, it's difficult to explain myself in face-to-face meetings or when trying to make a point. This is especially true because some people have a habit of interrupting other people when they are talking if what they are saying is boring, not well explained, is already known, or not completely related. Sometimes I get interrupted because I haven't made the explanation clearly in my head before speaking. I'm improvisational as I speak, but at times (and especially in my non-native tongue) can't find the right words. This is sometimes frustrating, but I've learned to live with it. Sometimes I have an idea, but unless it's a really good one and I have strong arguments supporting it, I don't say anything. From my point of view, we need to adopt a policy for speaking at meetings.
One other source of difficulties is when someone uses jargon, be it technical or not, if it's in written form I can search for it, but if it's spoken I have to ask for an explanation. This was an issue at the begining until Anthony noticed it and brought a solution in form of a informal company policy of "nobody should be afraid to ask".
Grammar is a collaborative effort
Everbody is encouraged to write in the company blog. I like to do it, even if it takes me up bit to start typing words for an article. Fortunately we have can ask any colleague with native level to made a review of any text, we have a Jekyll blog, pull requests are a great tool for this. When we are redacting support articles or writing support emails we can always ask. Having Americans living in European time zones helps too.
Summing it up
The challenges of working in a remote company that uses a language which is not native to you are varied and important. From being able to make points in meetings to being able to express yourself as the person you really are (as you would you express in your mother language). Remote companies that employ workers from different countries should adopt policies that encourage workers to express themselves when they are in disadvantage through native speakers and help mantain a good comunication level company-wise.