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?