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International Jobs: Does my English need to be perfect?

  • Last modified: February, 16 2023
  • Reading time: 10 mins

November last year I gave a talk in WordCamp São Paulo about remote work and finally the text version is here! If you speak Portuguese, the talk is available on YouTube.

That was a long talk, so I’m going to publish the text in parts. Do not forget to sign up for the newsletter to get notifications about the next posts, okay? Here is the list of other posts already published:

Does my English need to be perfect?

This is people’s first question when we talk about working for an international company. If you think you need to speak English like a native to get a job, that is a barrier that only exists in your mind.

Understand and be understood are the only things you really need.

That is really it. If you can understand someone speaking in English and if people can understand you speaking English even with your accent (everybody has an accent) you are ready.

Nothing replaces a course

Every once in a while we hear about some superheroes that learned how to speak English all by themselves. That is not the reality for most people though. There are at least two things you most likely have only by attending a course:

  • Writing practice – Only by practicing you will learn some irregular verbs’ past forms (think > thought), how do you spell some words, etc.
  • Grammar – Knowing the basics will make your life easier when you don’t understand a word but get the overall context.

You don’t need a 15-year course, that is not my point. You do need to be sure you have the basics of writing and grammar structures.

Movies, TV shows, games, and code lives

I was super afraid of entering into a meeting and not understanding a word people were saying. I started watching TV shows and YouTube videos. First with English subtitles, then with no subtitles at all. This exercise helped me and it still helps me a lot.

Code lives on Twitch also help a lot. There you will hear some jargons that you only read.

Here are some examples that worked for me. At the time I gave the talk I was watching Andor, today I’d say The Last of Us.

Andor (Disney+)
Gameranx (YouTube)
Zanny (YouTube)
RyanWelcherCodes (Twitch)

Real life

Courses, YouTube videos, TV shows… none of that really prepares you for real life. In real life you will need to deal with:

  • Acronyms and expressions – These folks really love acronyms. EOD, ASAP, and AFAIK are some of them but you will see a lot of new ones when you start. Expressions like Ballpark estimates are also part of this item.
  • Broken audio – In a movie everybody hears each other without any noise. In real life the video freezes, the audio breaks up, and more. Expressions like Do you mind saying that again? or You broke up a bit I only heard after attending meetings.
  • Accents – I am lucky to be part of a very plural team. We have American, German, Indian, Hungarian, Mexican, and more. Sometimes it is hard to get one or two explanations but instead of faking you understood, it is better to say I’m not sure I follow… and ask them to explain it in a different way. This happens more than people imagine.

I don’t know how courses outside Brazil work but here we learn something like How are you? I’m fine, thanks, and you? In real life, no one really uses that. Pay attention to others and adapt.

When I joined the company, I almost gave up!

I’ve been part of 10up for 3 years now but I almost quit in my first weeks. We have a daily standup and it was nearly impossible for me to understand one of my colleagues.

I brought that to my leadership team and they told me it was normal and that I would get used to it. I really got used to it after a while.

It can be hard in the beginning. Do not give up!

Here is a tip: always be frank, and never pretend you understood. Companies really value people who know how to communicate well and (as weird as it may sound) part of good communication is saying when something needs to be explained in a different way.

Tools

In addition to Google Translate, there are at least two tools that help me a lot on a daily bases and I think it is worth sharing with you:

Grammarly

Grammarly is a service that helps while writing in English. I use it as a browser extension and it helps me with things like the image.

Google “define:ACRONYM”

As I said, acronyms are very common in English. When I see a new one that I don’t know yet, I search for define:ACRONYM in Google and usually, the first result is already enough.

Conclusion

In this first post of the series, we saw that understanding and being understood is the level of English you need to have to try an international job.

Practice in writing and grammar knowledge is essential, so a course is recommended. It doesn’t need to be a 10 years course, but a structured study with a few months at least.

Watching something you like as YouTube videos, TV shows, and movies help a lot but with subtitles in English or no subtitle at all. Code lives are also interesting.

Nothing replaces real-life experience. Expressions and trivial problems are not represented in movies and series, so be prepared to learn a lot at the beginning.

I also told a little about my bumpy start and how I almost quit in the first weeks. It is important to persist, it is worth it!

Lastly, we saw some tools you will want to keep near you when communicating in a different language.


This was just the first part! Subscribe to the newsletter and follow me on social networks to be updated about part 2.

Felipe Elia

Lead Web Engineer at 10up, WordPress Core Contributor, Global Polyglots Mentor in WordPress.org, and Locale Manager in the Brazilian WP Community.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Delfina

    Great tips Felipe & I also really appreciate your candidness!

    P.S. We’re taught the same bizarre “I’m fine, thanks, and you?” exchange in English language courses in Albania 😛

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