Interviewing In Your Second Language: An Essential Guide

For many people, interviews can be the most challenging, stressful part of professional life. Many of the best professionals can approach their actual jobs with the utmost confidence and ease, even in crisis situations, but doing well in an interview situation can still be a struggle.

Unfortunately, interviewing in a second language can be an essential requirement for many expats, and when you’re interviewing in a language that’s not your native tongue, you have additional layers of complexity and stress to deal with.It is difficult enough to be at your best when the interview is in your own language, but when you need to simultaneously translate your every thought, work around the almost inevitable deficiencies of vocabulary, pay attention to your pronunciation, and decipher what your interviewer is saying, an interview can be particularly daunting.

However, if you want to live and work in a country where the language is different from your own, without negatively affecting your career prospects, it’s important to be able to comfortably use the local language in professional situations, including in interviews. Basic fluency – the kind that you can get away with on the street – isn’t enough here. Here’s a quick run-down of what you need to do in order to ace a job interview in your second language.

Brush up on your language skills

This of course is the first step. Professional speech, especially conversation in a job interview, requires a different level of proficiency than that needed to navigate day-to-day life. Make sure you know all (or at least most of) the professional jargon – you can’t keep slipping into your first language in every other sentence. It is of course also important to make sure that you’re using the right dialect. Spanish, for example, varies from one location to the next, sometimes even within a single country. You will of course research the company and the industry from a professional standpoint, so remember to consider the language aspects as well.

Remember that many industries have their own acronyms and professional words that won’t come under your usual language skills. Also consider the location of the company’s headquarters, the location where you are likely to be posted, and the location of the majority of the company’s clients or customers. The dialect used in the company and the dialect you know may not necessarily be the same. Depending on how different the two are, this may or may not be too much of a problem, but to the extent possible, develop some fluency with the dialect that is likely to be used most within the organization. While you’re doing this, you should also pick up as many cultural nuances as you can. These are always important, and doubly so in a professional situation.

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Practice interviewing in the language

You should ideally practice interviewing in your second language. Get in as much general practice as you can, but focus on professional conversations, and interviews in particular. Ensure that you can intelligently and coherently discuss your industry and elaborate on your CV in the language. If you’re using a consultant of some sort to find and apply for jobs, they will usually be able to set up a few practice interview sessions; if not, it’s a good idea to ask a friend to help.

If neither option is open to you, try practising in front of a mirror. List a few standard interview questions in English, and translate them into the language you need to practice; then sit in front of a mirror, ask yourself the questions, and then answer them. Note where and how you fumble, your pronunciations, and your body language. If you’re practicing on your own, it might be a good idea to record yourself; it’s difficult to simultaneously focus on communicating correctly and on analyzing how you’re doing. Recording each session will allow you to focus on your language during the session, and then go back later to analyze it.

Be honest and open about your language skills

Most expats are unlikely to be able to speak completely fluently in their second language. If your interviewer is a native speaker, he or she is certainly going to be more fluent than you are, and of course this isn’t something you can hide. What’s important is that you are forthright about your level of proficiency in the language. Don’t overstate your language skills, either on your CV or at the interview. Be honest in your CV, and right at the start of the interview, make your limitations known – perhaps you’re struggling with the industry jargon or with grammar, perhaps you speak a different dialect, or perhaps you want to request that they speak a bit slowly. Of course, you need to do this with tact.

Be brief, don’t dwell on your limitations, and also mention what you do well in the language – for example, perhaps you can read and write very well. It’s also important to first acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses to yourself. Try to fairly and objectively assess your fluency. If possible, ask a friend for an opinion (preferably, of course, someone who’s a native speaker or who is at least more fluent than you). It’s important that you don’t approach the interview with too much confidence, and, on the other hand, that you don’t undermine yourself with worry and self-doubt.

Be comfortable with a pace and vocabulary that you can manage

In general, people tend to talk quickly at job interviews due to nerves. When speaking in your second language, it’s even more important to resist this impulse. Remember that speed does not necessarily indicate fluency, and that you can have more of an impact if you’re slow and deliberate. It’s better to speak slowly and calmly, especially here, where you need to choose your words more carefully than usual. Another tendency at job interviews is to use big words and phrases; and again, when you’re interviewing in a language you’re not 100% fluent in, it’s even more important than usual to resist this urge. In any language and in any situation, unnecessarily using big words is an impediment and can indicate that you’re trying too hard; at an interview in your second language, it’ll also increase the chances of you fumbling or saying something you don’t quite mean. Instead, just use the simplest language that can clearly and accurately convey your meaning.

Be comfortable with pauses and silence

Remember that you don’t need to be constantly talking. After every question, pause to gather your thoughts (and your vocabulary), and don’t be afraid to pause while you’re talking. You can even tell the interviewer that you want to think about your answer or that you need to think about how to phrase your answer. Unless done excessively, this won’t come across as a weakness. Instead, being comfortable with silence will convey a certain calmness and confidence.

Don’t be afraid to ask for repetition and clarification

You’re unlikely to be able to understand every single word that’s said to you during the interview. However, not every word is crucial to the meaning of what’s being said: to a large extent, you’ll still be able to understand the conversation from the context. Nonetheless, if you find that there are significant words or entire sentences that you don’t understand, feel free to ask the interviewer to repeat themselves or rephrase. Don’t try to guess what has been said if you’ve been unable to understand key words or a significant part of the conversation. It’s better to admit to a lack of fluency than to answer a question incorrectly, and the worst thing you can do is give the impression that you’re trying to fake your way through the interview. Don’t be afraid to ask for the meaning of a particular word or phrase if necessary. If you feel that asking for repetitions and clarifications is getting tiresome, you can restate or rephrase the question yourself, and then ask if you’ve understood it correctly.

Brush up on professional etiquette

This isn’t strictly about the language itself, but about the cultural differences that go with it. Professional etiquette varies across the world, and where there are language differences, there will also be differences in culture and etiquette. Ensure that you know what these differences are, so that you can conduct yourself accordingly. Understand how formal or casual you need to be at the interview, and to what extent personal discussions are typically part of professional conversations. For example, you may be asked personal questions that would otherwise be considered rude or prying, and it may even be considered polite to ask the interviewer similar questions. In some countries, clearly stating your interest in the job is an essential indicator of your seriousness, while in other countries it might be considered rude and too forward. Exchanging business cards may also be expected in some countries, while in others it may be considered too pushy. Figure out how you need to address the interviewer and anyone else you meet at the organization – by first name or last name, with “Mr” or a local honorific, or simply as “Sir”. Also find out whether a handshake is enough when you meet them, or whether something more formal, such as a bow, is expected.

Lastly, find out how you should dress. You don’t want to turn up for your interview underdressed or overdressed. Check whether the company has its own guidelines or a code for dressing, and what the general professional etiquette is in the country in terms of attire.

Some tips for phone interviews

Not all interviews are done face to face, and doing a phone interview in a second language has its own challenges. The audio distortion over a phone line can make it more difficult to understand your interviewer, and the absence of visual cues such as lip movements and body language can further complicate things for you. However, if you can’t see them, they can’t see you either, which has its own advantages. Here are a few tips on how to handle a telephone interview in your second language:

– When brushing up on your language skills, pay specific attention to phone conversations. In most languages, greetings and etiquette are slightly different over the phone, and there will also be formal and informal ways to conduct a phone conversation. Make sure you have the right vocabulary and tone.

– If possible, practice having professional conversations over the phone in the language. Here too, your consultant, a language trainer, or a friend can help.

– Make sure you have a good connection. Poor connectivity will make it difficult for both you and the interviewer to understand each other, and can be extremely frustrating. You have enough on your hands, so don’t unnecessarily complicate things – use the most stable, reliable line you have.

– Schedule the call for a time when you will be alert and undisturbed. There may be a difference in time zones, so the time window you have will be limited. However, within this limited window, try to pick the best possible time, when you are unlikely to be drowsy or disturbed by family members or other distractions.

– Keep your CV at hand, either on paper or on your computer.

– Make notes beforehand and, if necessary, during the call too. If you can’t be seen, use this to your advantage – note down unusual phrases and any other information that will help you.

– For a video call, make sure you dress appropriately and tidy your surroundings. This can also be useful even for a call where you won’t be seen: dressing professionally will help you to feel as if you’re being interviewed and will underline the need to be professional.

Sources: [1], [2], [3]


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