Interviewing people with poor English language skills

Allon asks-“tell me about the type of input you would like to get from HQ”. Answer- “Me no hap no sahlale inkalez lohne tahm, lah.”

Yes, interviewing people whose native language is not English is hard for for the interviewer! In the above case, it took me about 5 more minutes to understand that this Thai engineer had not had a salary increase for a long time, which did not even address my question as I had asked it!

Interviewing people whose level of English is poor presents a cultural as well as linguistic challenge. In many of my posts, I have provided tips on how to deal with cultural differences in an interview. In this post I will deal with the linguistics of interviewing someone whose English is substandard,.

  1. Prepare simply worded questions and pluck out all the tough words. Utilize becomes use; sinister becomes bad, harass becomes bother.
  2. Ask each question several times and in several ways. Please explain how Som deals with customers? Do customers annoy Som? How does Som solve customer problems? If you get very different answers, then try again, since many interviewees feign understanding.
  3. When there is a really hard concept to convey in a question, it makes sense to put the question in writing in the interviewees native language. One case I remember is asking “is there is an emphasis on the individual doing everything possible to get the job done”. This was really tough to convey to various populations.
  4. Some words don’t translate and you need to prepare a “work around”. For example there is no such word as “expedient” in Hebrew or teamwork in Chinese. So instead of asking if Dov solves problems expediently, you can ask if Dov is capable of functional compromise.
  5. Never assume you are understood. It is much better to assume that you are going to be misunderstood unless proven differently.
  6. Triple the time you allot for an interview.
  7. Take breaks frequently because in some cases, the interview process can be brutal. I remember one very painful migraine after interviewing one particular person in Seoul.
  8. Enjoy the ride. There are funny moments that can be enjoyed. Like when I asked how to pronounce someone’s name and it took me 15 minutes to get it right. Or when some asked me “you chew”, meaning “are you Jewish”?