Coaching ramblings from China

I’m just completing my fourth trip to China to coach Chinese engineers in TDD. I’ve learned a few things, I hope, about coaching people who don’t speak my language as a first language. I also had occasion to use what little I know on the subject while at the Scrum gathering in Shanghai, the first in China. Before I get into that, let me tell you about my adventure getting the the Scrum gathering.

I wanted to stay at a Courtyard hotel to get my Marriott points. It was across the city in Pudong. I would travel the city by subway. Needless to say, Shanghai is not small. Around 20 million people, some sources say more than 20M. The gathering was on the other side of the city. I would normally say east and west, but it is really confusing to my usual sense of direction reversed with California to the east and Europe to the west. But now that I have gotten my map bearings, the hotel was in the east and the gathering was in the northwest of Shanghai.

After a restful night at the Courtyard, I took out my Shanghai map and the directions to the hotel hosting the gathering. I made my way to the subway. It was not a real busy day on the subway. Only about half the population of Shanghai was on the train with me. The other half was going the other way. Well anyway, I was carefully watching the stops. So careful that I got off one stop early. Nice move James. I did not discover that great move until I was outside the station. I could have paid another 4 RMB ($0.69) on gotten on the train again, but I just came up a lot of stairs. I’m gonna keep going I thought.

It was hot, I was not quite lost, I could put a dot on the map of my location. Unfortunately my dot and the circle, showing the hotel, were not close enough to walk. Not close enough with a deadline, high heat, humidity, and my bags. Where are the taxis? Why is everything under construction? A little hand waving with a Chinese policeman and a helpful Chinese girl that spoke some English, and I was heading the right direction for a Taxi, I hoped.

Through the construction rubble, down the stairs, under the tracks, up the stairs, getting too hot, wishing I brought less stuff… There is a Taxi! I gave him the hotel’s directions from their website and he started asking me questions in Chinese. If he was saying nee-how (hello) or Shay-shay (thank you, that’s the best I can do on the pronunciation) I could have understood him completely and spoken likewise. So I had to revert to sign language, map pointing, and a smile. When he looked at the hotel directions, I did not get an immediate feeling of confidence. I showed him the circle on my Shanghai map of my destination. (Google helped me place that circle.)

He drove, Chinese taxi style. The horn is the most important part of a Chinese taxi. Some drivers use it continuously. It’s a good practice too, given that a taxi ride means spending almost as much time in near collisions, and driving in wrong (left) lane as on the right (right) side of the street. Oh, yeah. Seat belts are usually missing from the taxis. Bicycles, mopeds, and pedestrians inches away. After some hair raising moments, he pulls to the place corresponding to the circle on my map. I was navigating from the back, so I was pretty sure this is where google says the hotel is. The problem is that he stopped in front of a big construction site. There was no hotel in sight. He looks back, expecting me to get out. I decided getting to the hotel is now his problem. I was only going to get out at the hotel. We drove back and forth, forth and back. All the landmarks were right, just no hotel.

Now I start searching my phone for my host’s phone number so I can get my driver some help. The phone rings, it is my friend and host Yi, wondering if I was still coming. Actually, he knew I was lost. Other people used google too. I gave the phone to the driver, a rapid and animated unintelligible discussion followed. We turned around–again–pulling down an under-construction street. We were under the circle from google, on what looked like an alley leading to a lower level street. This can’t be right—but it was! We were at the Pier One! I made it on time with minutes to spare. Taxi, 18 RMB (translation $2.75), tour of northwest Shanghai, priceless.

The Scrum gathering was attended by 50 or so Scrum practitioners from around China. There were a few westerners. Bas Vodde opened the open space, I guess the space was closed before that. Most were new to open space, but that did not matter. We obviously had the right people, the right topics and had the right discussion. (by definition)

The day was great fun. Many people wanted to talk to the guy that came all the way from Chicago. I had the distinct honor of having anyone interested in TDD, or Acceptance testing come and talk to me. I did some fitnesse demos, something many had heard of and few had seen. There we open space sessions on various aspects of scrum. All these scrum enthusiasts; coming from Beijing, Hong Kong, Hangzhou, and Chengdu; gave up their Saturday hoping to share and learn. I think they did, I did. By mid afternoon I was quite beat.

Communicating was a challenge, which is what I meant to write about in this post. I’ve learned a few things about communicating with the english-as-a-second-language engineers. If any of you who I have been working with would care to comment about what I have learned, I would appreciate it.

Speak slowly. The engineers I have been working with study English, but they do not get a lot of opportunities to speak with native English speakers. When I walk around Hangzhou, I am usually the only westerner I see, unless I go to the Shamrock Irish pub. So opportunities are not prevalent for the Chinese to speak to westerners.

Look for signs of understanding. You might not get many cues, but there will be some. I am coaching programming so I can see if they understand by their actions at the keyboard. But if you think there is a miscommunication, you are probably right, and then you might try some of these other tactics.

Write key words and ideas as you speak. Obviously in studying English, the student learns to read and write. This takes pronunciation out of the communication problem. Write down some key words, connect the word with your pronunciation. Look for understanding again. You might get a meeting of the minds more quickly.

Draw pictures. Someone said they are worth a thousand words. What can I add to that.

Remember speak slowly. Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting. When I am excited about a topic the words come out faster. Slow down, then don’t forget to slow down again, then…

Try different words. With a boat load of words meaning the same thing, try other words. You never know what vocabulary was taught to the receiver of your words, so try them out. This can be fun too.

Say it differently. One sentence does not work, try another.

Have fun, don’t get frustrated. Too much seriousness can get in the way.

If they don’t understand talk LOUDER! Just kidding. Whispering does not help either.

Say it in C code. Well this is not general advice, this is very specific to my purpose for being in the multi-language situation. I am coaching them in programming and design, so if it is a programming issue, say it in C, or UML, or whatever. Complex technical ideas are hard enough when all parties speak the same language. Grab the keyboard and make it clear. I suppose this advice could be generalized to other technical fields where a limited vocabulary could be used. Write the equation, sketch the flow, write the chemical reaction…

Do you have any advice on how to keep the communication flowing?

8 thoughts on “Coaching ramblings from China

  1. thanks for your efforts. i didn’t know your adventures in your trip to the gathering. that was really adventurous:) linchuan

  2. Hi James. I’ve been following your ramblings with interest for quite a while and today I felt maybe it was time to try to say something back.

    It was the sentence “I’ve learned a few things, I hope, about coaching people who don’t speak my language as a first language”. I am a native Spanish speaker who has learned “in English” (and mainly also in England) to develop software. I am now trying to share some of the tricks I’ve learned and believe are useful with others, who are neither English nor Spanish native speakers. I live and work in Finland now and my colleagues are half from around here and the other half from the rest of the world.

    From previous experiences, I’ve learned a few things, I also hope, about coaching others “in English and in England”. I’ve also learned that it is something I find hugely rewarding, to “get” to someone (technically) and to find common (and many times new) understanding, to use what I’ve learned to help others solve new problems… I like working with people, always have.

    But I am finding it difficult to “translate” my past experience into this new culture. You don’t mention about cultural differences on your ramblings from China. I am finding them both fascinating and challenging on my daily work. When it gets tough, I say to myself that these are new tricks that I will have to learn, and that at the end of the day I will be a better coach for that.

    That’s enough of *me* rambling, anyway. I will try to get to some potentially useful ramblings now. About communicating with people in different languages. You say to “look for signs of understanding”, and I’d like to build on that. In normal conversation, it seems to me that people tend to grab the bits of information that their brain can process with less effort first, to try and “make sense” of what is being said (use context to infer meaning). That can easily lead to concepts and ideas being only half-understood, but understanding can be built-up iteratively that way, on top of the recipient’s existing knowledge. You can almost “see” the layers being built. It’s great!

    When language is an issue this behaviour is even more evident, but the bits which are readily understood can depend very much on a person’s familiarity with the words you’re using, not so much with their technical knowledge. Similarly, when speaking back in a language you’re not familiar with, the information you “put on the wire” is filtered by your command of the language, and details that you would have wished to go into (and you realise of that later on, when you’ve lost the context) are left out.

    Not much of a point so far: command (or rather lack of it) of the language acts as a filter in both the emitter and the receiver in ways that may be difficult to see, or control.

    So for me, it becomes then necessary to actively keep this in mind, to be aware that there are things that are not even said, realise when it is happening, right before your eyes, so that you can do something about it there and then, before the context is lost. To be also aware that there are things which are “not heard”, and make note of that, to reiterate them on the next loop, maybe trying a different way. It becomes crucial to actively “test for understanding” both yours and the other person or persons you’re trying to communicate with.

    And here’s where the “cultural” twist comes too. You don’t want to offend or frustrate the other person. They are not stupid, they know their stuff, it is just the language getting in the way. They may already feeling a bit frustrated that they have to use “your” language. So you need to be non-threatening, be respectful. And you have to know a bit “how” to do that in that context and in that culture (and ideally, with that person). It is not a trivial matter. You say: “have fun, don’t get frustrated”, I agree, but you have to know how to, how does “fun” and “funny” translate in this context? You don’t want to end up laughing “at” rather than “with”.

    I would say that smiling helps, but I remember the time I was presenting some new design ideas and one of the persons in the room asked me “that what you’ve just said, is it a good thing or a bad thing?”. The problem was a) that he wasn’t understanding what I was saying and b) he was trying to again use context to infer meaning by following my facial expressions and didn’t find many clues there, as I was smiling all the time.

    Something I’ve found helpful at times is to leave the room. In a meeting where I am the only reason why English is the spoken language, if I see that English is getting on the way, I get out of the way… it is not worth it me being there! I have the perfect excuse, as from my time in England I’ve become a heavy tea-drinker, so I get out to make myself a cup of tea (non-threatening). When I come back I usually find the discussion has livened-up and ideas are again flowing… I don’t understand anything that is being said any more, but then I can ask, catch up and keep on going (back to English again).

    I learned that from my children, they are tri-lingual and I sometimes can see how they get stuck not being able to say something in a particular language (usually Spanish if they are talking to me). Then I ask them to say it in English or Finnish, and that usually un-stucks their brains. It seems to me that it helps to say it aloud in the language that comes more naturally to you, and then translate later, once the idea has been formulated.

    Anyway, this got really long. Just want to take this chance to also thank you for all the useful information and experiences you’ve been sharing.

    Best regards,


  3. Hi Marta

    Thank you for your thoughtful *ramblings*. Yeah, I did not think to mention the cultural barriers, I’ll have to give that some thought. The cultural barriers inhibit looking for signs of understanding. In front of a group of people the signs are often missing, as in a group people are less likely to show their lack of understanding, regardless of language. When I’m with a fully English speaking group, I find that if I ask a question like “Who is not finished with the exercise?” I may get no reply. If I reverse the questions “Who is done with the exercise?” Then some hands go up. I have noticed in some foreign (to me) cultures that I don’t get an answer to either. So no one is finished and no one is not finished. The class is in some quantum state, neither done or not done like Schrödinger’s Cat. The I start thinking: Should I speak more slowly, should I try different words. In some cases I think this is cultural.

    I definitely see the layering of understanding you mentioned. To help get the layers to form, choosing different words, drawing pictures, writing key ideas in English, writing some code, are ways to get the layers forming. In hind site I have seen the “talk amongst yourselves” be very helpful. One session I was in the participant would actively stop me so they could talk amongst themselves. They would have an animated discussion lasting five+ minutes, completely ignoring me (which was totally OK). When they would finish, one of them would turn back to me and say “OK, you can continue”.

    I have found myself in a situation with two foreign speakers with differing levels of English language command. I asked the more accomplished English speaker to talk to the less accomplished speaker to clarify. That worked well in that situation. I definitely think I’ll use your tea trick, but I’ll probably get a coffee.

    Thank you for your insights and kind words.


  4. Sound good. As a non English native,I want to add something.

    Use some example if you find hard to make you understood. For ex. We use plane making to emphasize our code’s reliability importance.

    prepare a e-dictionary on hand. Either computer or smart phones with dictionary installed. It will quickly correct the misunderstanding or strange accent.

    “Look for signs of understanding.” is very important. In fact, for some culture like China it’s impolite to say don’t understand. (Regret about that)

    Thank you for your kind help in TDD. Hope it’s helpful.

  5. James, great subject for a blog.

    I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with non-native English speakers also. One thing that helps me communicate is explicit enunciation: I try to pronounce consonants distinctly and separate words clearly. This helps people who were introduced to English through the written word.

    One problem that I run into frequently is something a friend calls the “missing predicate” problem. The person I’m talking to says something which sounds like the subject of a sentence, but I’m not sure what their intention is toward it. It seems that there is an understanding that is left unstated. To get past that, I offer a predicate and ask. Someone I met in India told me that she believes that this is an artifact of Indian language, but I have run into it elsewhere as well.

  6. ha, interesting. I can imagine how you felt with your adventures. I had experience with my friends/colleagues visiting too. I just started using TDD recently( still with a lot of confusions and things I don’t really know how ot do yet. ). I was actually looking at your article on “embedded TDD” while I saw this post. Interesting.

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