Learning a language in a corporate environment

The people in the room are a bit more formal than I’m used to — they are not teenagers constrained by school ties and uncomfortable shoes, nor are they casual adults sitting at a kitchen table. The room is crisp and clear, and buzzing with a kind of energy that I’m not used to. And into this space I bring the very first word:


I see recognition on their faces, and hear them try out the word afresh. We fiddle with the pronunciation, and get it right, while talking about other parts of the language — and the very first brick in the wall has been removed, and in my mind, I say

“I see you, there, through the crack in the wall — are you ready to join me on this journey?”

Some of those who were in that first room are still part of the classes, every week, and some have decided to take other journeys. This is the same in every class I teach, and is quite normal — because learning a language is more than just knowing how to say “Hello”, it requires a deeper level of commitment to a life-long process, and time devoted to this process.

Learning a language in a corporate environment, with colleagues rather than with family or friends, actually achieves a different kind of engagement with the language — it allows for a much longer window of practice, as we all spend a good portion of our lives away from our friends and family and among our colleagues.

It also does something else. The language of the corporate environment is, for many English speakers, a monoglot environment. Sometimes, Afrikaans also comes in — but by and large, the experience of the working environment, especially meetings and formal interactions, is English. What many are unaware of is the undercurrent of otherness — the subtle code-switching and use of languages such as isiZulu and seSotho under the formal surface of the corporate environment, and the barriers between English or Afrikaans speakers and their colleagues who are swimming happily in that undercurrent.

In working with this group, I’ve also realised the importance of humility — and how brave one has to be to be humble and make mistakes in a formal or corporate space. Every time someone jumps into the space of speaking unfamiliar languages, there is a risk of failure. In a formal space, this risk is compounded. To ameliorate it, my advice to the group is

“Listen, first. You must be like a child. You will hear before you can speak”

And in listening, and seeing, and understanding more and more about the culture of the amaZulu, the professional environment becomes more human — there is more laughter in the group, and more wonder, and this will only continue to grow.

Guest Author: Cullen Mackenzie
Omnicor’s Zulu Teacher, Blogger and Polyglot