Notes: former Petroleum Engineer / Manager
My name is John Barry and I worked for 31 years for Shell, initially as a Petroleum Engineer and subsequently in economics and management roles. I retired in 2013. I know that 31 years with one company might sound really boring, but it actually felt like I worked for 8 or 9 completely different companies - in the oil and gas industry we tended to move between countries and jobs every 3 to 4 years, so it did not feel like one boring career at all.
What languages have you learned?
I have mastered French to the level of fluency. Although I was always an obsessive physics enthusiast at school and university, I did push my French further than most, probably reflecting my mother’s own interest in languages which somehow rubbed off on me as a child. Early trips with my parents to France, where I managed some basic exchanges with other 14 or 15 year olds, showed me early on just how satisfying it can be to communicate – even when the technical level of language skills on display was miserable!
My French took a further boost when my first posting overseas with Shell turned out to be to the African and Francophone country of Gabon. There I often found myself as the only person on our drilling rig who could actually intermediate between the French speaking Gabonese and the American rig crew. And then I met my French wife, Ghislaine, who was teaching in Gabon at the time, and that sealed it. If I could not speak decent French I would miss out on a lot of what was going on in her family, who spoke very little English. So I persevered!
While French is the only foreign language I am fluent in, I picked up some of the basics of Dutch and of Russian during my travels. In both cases, my employer was prepared to pay for some lessons as they recognised that speaking the local language, even badly, can change the way an incoming expatriate is viewed and make him or her far more effective in interpersonal relations.
I have tried to learn Spanish by doing evening classes. While the initial motivation was so as to be able to speak with Spanish born members of my wife’s family, in recent years it has been more the ability to get more out of holiday travels in Spain which has appealed.
How have language skills helped you in your work?
For me personally, language skills were an absolute game changer. In my first assignment to Gabon I was a “lowly” engineer on a drilling rig. Fifteen years later the company sent me back to Gabon as the country manager – leading an organisation with 800 employees and producing at that time more than half of the government’s tax revenue. I was relatively young to secure such an interesting and responsible job and I am convinced that my French language ability was the key factor in my selection. By that stage I had evolved to be pretty comfortable in the language and could hold business meetings in French. Despite my progress, I have to admit that the first time I had a meeting with the Gabonese trades unions in French was still terrifying. I was missing a lot of specialist vocabulary, but people around me were very supportive of my efforts and understood I was not using my first language.
My efforts to learn Russian also had positive spin offs on the work front, but I never got to the stage where I could hold a meeting in Russian without an interpreter on hand. Nonetheless, being able to exchange some simple greetings, enquiries after the children and such like did really help to break the ice with counterparts who at first sight might appear dour and forbidding. And I managed to make a number of speeches in Russian (sounds more impressive than it is - remember, a speech is prepared beforehand!) which also had a high symbolic value, showing respect for our host country and its own rich cultural traditions and history.
What benefits do you think language skills bring to your life and work?
In addition to making meetings go less awkwardly, and helping build interpersonal relations and mutual respect in the business sphere, I would highlight the strong links between studying a language and understanding a culture. Without some basic Russian, for example, I don’t think Ghislaine and I would have dared to travel to places like Kamchatka and Lake Baikal which were such enriching experiences and increased my curiosity and desire to read more on the history of Russia and the Soviet Union.
At an even more amateur level, my simple Spanish is enough to make sure that at least the first sentence or two of any exchange while we travel the Spanish regions is in Spanish. That buys a lot of goodwill and a lot more smiles straight off than does a “Buenas dias, can you speak English?”
Do you have any advice for anyone considering learning a language?
My Dutch friends always amazed me with their excellent language skills, and I think this related partly to their lack of fear of making mistakes. Perhaps coming from a small country, with a language not widely spoken, they had realised much younger than we British do that the important thing is to get a message across, not to be 100% correct. I know this is something which teachers try to instill in their pupils these days, but it is so true in my observation that I think it bears repeating.
My other little trick would be about learning correct pronunciation. To improve my French accent, I used to repeat simple French sentences in an exaggerated (Hollywood style) French accent. When I pushed this really to the limit (think Pink Panther!) my French friends would say “Good, you have almost lost your English accent”! I try to remember this need to consciously exaggerate the accent you are aiming for, especially in the early stages of learning a language.
And finally, when the locals fall about laughing at your attempts to speak their language, laugh with them! You probably said something with a double meaning in their language, without realising it, and by joining in with the hilarity you can pretend you did it deliberately. Very soon your reputation for even being able to make jokes in a foreign language will be secured…!
Any tips on how best to approach communicating in a language you have little knowledge of?
I recall spending a whole evening with a visiting Japanese maintenance engineer who spoke no English or French at all, communicating using a Japanese-English-Japanese dictionary. It was tiring and a bit slow, but very satisfying to be able to learn a few things about this man’s life in far off Japan, his family and such like. I suppose nowadays a translation app would make this less painful, but the fact that we managed somehow to communicate and developed a sort of friendship during his stay in Africa is a testament to what can be done when the motivation is there. I learned very little Japanese beyond the greetings, but we communicated. There is always a way.
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