Native English speaker?

Sep 12, 2019

As you might have read or heard by now, I go to China to teach design and innovation on a regular basis. Going to China is always an adventure, not only because of the cultural difference, climate or food but also because I, unfortunately, don’t speak Mandarin (ok, I am able to order a coffee without sugar, salt or milk by now but it would be awesome if I would one day be able to read a menu and order the dishes I actually want instead of letting this be a surprise every time again haha).

My native language is Dutch, I can read and speak a bit of German and French, but I chose to learn English as fluent as possible. Even though my English is not always perfect (yes, you might encounter some spelling mistakes in my posts sometimes), I value getting my messages across more.

It is more important to get your message across than to be fluent in a foreign language.

Every time I go to China, I try to encourage my students to speak English. I know they can (some are more comfortable with speaking it than others), but the first week or two this is always a huge struggle for all of us. Why? They are afraid to fail. So they just don’t try.

This is where my Chinese skills come into play (ahum). I know my pronunciation is far from perfect and often I say something else than what I actually mean, but over the years I’ve learned not to care! My goal is to create a safe place where making ‘mistakes’ – both creatively and language wise – is an opportunity to learn and grow.

It has happened more than once that it took me 4(!) weeks to find out that a student was actually able to speak English quite well. But, as soon as they do, a world opens up, we can directly communicate without a translator and there is no turning back. Mission accomplished!

Conquer your fear of ‘looking stupid’

Imagine this; A foreigner asks you to help her with directions or some advice in your native language, and this person struggles to speak your language, but she does everything in her power to find the right words and make herself understandable. Would you laugh at her and walk away? I highly doubt it. You would rather be impressed by her efforts and of course you would help her! This person has just overcome her fear of making mistakes and failing and boosted her confidence at the same time.

So never EVER be afraid of making language or grammar mistakes, whether you’re dyslexic or not. The goal is to communicate your message and to help each other.

Don’t let language be the barrier to express yourself.

If you don’t entirely feel comfortable with speaking a language, you can of course also draw, show prototypes, make photos, etc. Nobody says this is forbidden. The goal is to get your message across because this will help and inspire others!

Trying to understand your own culture exclusively from within, will stop you from expanding your horizon. This is the same with any creative or innovative project you’re working on; if you want to get new perspectives and escape your own bubble, you will have to actively seek for new input outside of your own frames of reference. And once your eyes are opened, there is no way back.

Speaking another language will help you to explore new cultures, collaborate with people with different (cultural) perspectives and give every project your working on a boost.

As one of my great teachers Miriam Bestebreurtje once said:

If someone doesn’t speak a language perfectly, it actually means that this person is very smart, because they are able to also express themselves in another language than their mother tongue.

Keep this in mind the next time you start to feel insecure while communicating your message in another language than your mother tongue. Whether this is a real foreign language or the ‘language’ of creativity or design thinking, that you might be new to.


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