First, Learn The Language

The following is an adaptation of the speech I gave at Hong Kong Toastmasters International speech competition. Thought is was interesting so I decided to post it.

Do you remember your first day of school? How about your first time away from you parents or your first time out of the country. Do you remember your first day at a new job or the first day of being a parent. Do you remember how anxious you felt about the unfamiliarity?

We’ve all been in situations like this and looked out at an uncertain future and not known where to start. I’ve found myself in situations like this a lot. It’s almost like I have crazy desire to put myself in these situations.

I’ve found that all of these types of challenges have a one thing in common: you will have to navigate new communities. And despite the difficulty of theses challenges it is possible to become fluent in a community if you can learn the language of that community.

Learning the language of the community makes everything possible. It allows you to understand the community, learn from the community, and express yourself as part of the community.  So if there is one thing that you must do to become fluent in any new community, you must first, learn the language.

When I say “language”, I don’t just mean spoken and written language like Japanese and Spanish. But don’t get me wrong, sometimes learning the spoken language is enough to be prosperous. For example,Gung Hei Fat Choi!”  But by language, I mean everything that we as humans do to understand and express complex ideas and relationships.

The Chinese New Year tradition of red packets in exchange for greeting "Kung Hie Fat Choi"
The Chinese New Year tradition of red packets in exchange for greeting “Kung Hie Fat Choi”

Learning a programming language is a perfect example and works on a couple levels. I remember my first days of learning Javascript. The first script I ever wrote was called biscuits.js. The script was how I imagined the instructions to making Spelt Biscuits would look if they were written JavaScript. The script would have caused a ReferenceError on line 1 but this made me hungry for more.

At the time, I was eating a lot of biscuits because they were in my budget as a very junior employee and the prep time to bake time ratio allowed me a lot of time to practice actually learning the JavaScript language. I was infatuated with the process. I think it was the first time I had ever fallen in love.

Learning the language presented a challenged I had never experienced and introduced a foreign community who I would otherwise have no access to. This was a phenomena that I had experienced before; tacitly, as a kid dropped into a Spanish-speaking kindergarten class in a Catholic school in Puerto Rico, and disorientedly, as a kid traveling around the world in the two preceding years. But this was the first instance, so many years since my first experience, that I began to understand the meaning of language.

In Puerto Rico, Kindergartners graduate from their class. Here is me on that day in a class that had more girls than boys.
In Puerto Rico, Kindergartners graduate from their class. Here is me on that day in a class that had more girls than boys.

I gradually began to pick out words that I could understand from the conversations of engineers at work. Without asking stupid questions, I could stand closer to the conversation. Within a year, I was sitting in the middle of a crowded hall filled with harry and smelly JavaScript Enthusiasts listening to a conversation about l’art pour l’artof reverse engineering the YouTube JavaScript API. I even worked up the courage to pose a question in front of the audience. To my surprise, nobody laughed. And two participants provided lively, passionate answers to validate my question. Only a year prior, this was a community of people that spoke my language and I didn’t even know how to speak it.

There are also elements of every community that you cannot understand without learning from community members.

I remember when first moved to Hong Kong to join a sourcing company. Not only did I not understand the Cantonese language around me, but I didn’t understand the language of sourcing. Product jargon and endless acronyms, it was like two foreign languages as the same time!

If you’ve have ever seen a quality assurance flow chart, business unit org charts or a production tracking spreadsheets, you would know what I mean. If you printed on paper, they would cover the entire floor of my 400 sq. foot Hong Kong apartment! And they are filled with product images, Dates, Symbols, Colors, Abbreviations and Codes and very few written words. These documents are a representation of the language that was created just for sourcing and can only be decoded by people within this community.

An epic flowchart. A whole other language.
An epic flowchart. A whole other language.

In my first week I sat in on IT workshop and though the meeting was in English, I could barely understand half of it. But over the past year I have had the opportunity to work on four projects with people who use this language in their daily work. And I remember by my third project I was actually giving the definition of “DV Sample” to my coworker. This was a big moment for me. But the moment that I was most proud of was when I made a joke in the language of sourcing and people actually laughed!

That is when you know you have made it. When you have gained fluency in a community, you can express yourself in a way that community understands and empathizes with you.

It’s been just over a year in sourcing and I am not saying that I am fluent in Javascript or sourcing just yet, but most of the time I can understand what is going on and can get my point across.

Like starting school, or leaving my home for the first time, it was difficult at first, but thanks to a  concerted effort to learn and practice the language, it has progressed very well. So next time you face the challenge of starting fresh and have to navigate a new community, I encourage you to first, learn the language.


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