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Breaking Language Barriers: A Non-Japanese Addition to a Japanese-Only Team

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Introduction & What’s the story?

I am Yuki T. from the Global Development Division. I am responsible for the Operation and Maintenance of products for the global market.

Our team members in the Global Development Division come from diverse nationalities and speak a variety of different languages. Among them, my team consists of both team members who don’t speak Japanese as well as those who don’t speak English. So you could say we have made huge efforts (struggles?) to establish communication within the team. In this article I would like to introduce the content of these efforts and the insights gained in the process.

Conclusion

  - If you can’t speak English, Japanese is Okay.
  - If you can’t speak, at least try writing. But if you do, write it precisely.
  - It’s hard, but it’s worth the effort.

Introduction (What Kind of Team Are We?)

I will share now a bit about my team (operations and maintenance) within the Global Development Division. We are 8 members. The member composition and work procedures are as follows.

Nationality A mix of full-time employees and outsourcing company members. The team has been around for about a year now.
At the beginning, we were only Japanese members. But a foreign team mate also joined after a while.
Work Style a hybrid of remote and in-office. Agile Development (Scrum).
On the different Scrum events, a mix of remote and in-office members join.
Communication Slack for communication, Teams for meetings mostly.
Atlassian Jira and Confluence for task and document management.

The language proficiency of the members varies, but the majority of them are Japanese (8 out of 6).

Classification Language proficiency Number of people
A English only. Does not speak Japanese at all (foreign nationality) 1
B Mainly English. Daily conversational level of Japanese (foreign nationality) 1
C Mainly Japanese Daily conversational level of English (Japanese nationality) 2
D Mainly Japanese Can’t speak English. Can read and write a little (Japanese and foreign nationality) 4

By the way, I (of Japanese nationality) would be "C" above. About TOEIC 800. I can speak a little bit, but when it comes to complicated discussions, my lack of vocabulary is immediately apparent. And I’m pretty bad when it comes to listening skills.

Next (Done - Learned - Next step)

When the team was first formed, the group consisted mainly of "C" and "D" level members (hereinafter referred to as "Japanese members"), and communication was mainly in Japanese.[1] We tried various things to get English-speaking people to "A" and "B" level (hereinafter referred to as "English members") to join this team.

Here is a summary of the results from the retrospective method[2] (Done - Learned - Next Steps). I will divide each situation in three categories: 1. Contact method (Slack), 2. Meetings (Teams), and 3. Documents (Confluence and Jira).

1. Contact Method (Slack)

Done "Even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can read it by copying and pasting it into a translation tool, right?"
Learned "Translation is readable only at the beginning."
It is quite annoying to translate by copy-pasting each and every time (you’ll see if you try it yourself).
Even if you are mentioned, there are surprisingly many cases in which it is not really related to you, leading to a loss of motivation for copy-and-paste translations. It feels like a wasted effort.

In many cases, Slack also requires reading the entire thread to grasp the meaning, not just single messages. This also seems to contribute to the difficulty of translation.
Next step "Let’s write in both Japanese and English."
Important messages were also written in English.
The point is not to translate entire Japanese texts. I didn’t find any good examples to publish here, but for example: Example of a Slack message Simplify the issue in English for easy understanding. For details, translate the remaining text independently or inquire about them separately. It is difficult for the sender to translate everything.

2. Meetings (Teams)

Done ① "I’ll be speaking in Japanese, so use the Teams translator function to read the subtitles."
② "Even if you’re not good at English, try your best to speak in English!"
③ "OK, then I’ll translate everything!"
Learned ① "I don’t understand what it means even after reading."
The conclusion is that the accuracy of machine translation between colloquial Japanese and English is still low.
In particular, Japanese in a casual meeting with a small number of people has various adverse conditions for machine translation, such as stagnant speech, ambiguous subjects and objects, and multiple people speaking at the same time.

② "No one is satisfied."
With effort, speaking in broken English, yet neither the Japanese nor the English members can understand. Also, if you don’t know what to say in English, you don’t speak in the first place, so everyone became quieter compared to when speaking in Japanese. The meetings ended quicker, but with little information to be gained.

③ "Never-ending meetings"
Since I have to speak in English after the Japanese member speaks, it simply took twice as long. In addition, with my English being just a little better than daily conversational level,I often got stuck on how to translate,
and that extended the time even more.And while we are speaking in English, the Japanese members would be just waiting. As a result, meetings tended to be sloppy.
Next step "If you are not good at English, you can use Japanese"
I made it so that people who are not good at English could speak in Japanese. I then decided to focus on the content relevant to the English-speaking members and serve as the interpreter. This has helped to keep meeting times as short as possible.

"If you can’t speak, you can at least write about it."
But if this is all, the amount of information conveyed to English-speaking members will be reduced. So I instructed them to write meeting notes with as much detail as possible. By doing so, even if you do not understand it on the spot, you can read it later using the browser’s translation function. Incidentally, because we write down the words as we hear them, the notes may be a mixture of Japanese and English.

"Still, effort is required."
Still, there are situations like Sprint Retrospectives where you have to convey the meaning in real time and not later. In such cases, I add translations on the spot, even if it takes time. For example (in blue) Example of Retrospective comment In the case of Sprint Retrospective, while everyone is verbally explaining their ideas on Keep or Problem, I make good use of the gap time by adding translations.

3. Document (Jira and Confluence)

Done "I’ll write it in Japanese, so use your browser’s translate function to read it."
Learned "Confluence relatively is OK, but Jira is a bit tough."
Design documents and specifications mainly on Confluence are translated relatively well. Also, many of the documents of the Global Development Division are originally written in English, so there is no need to worry about that.
However, the translation accuracy of the comments on Jira tickets was poor. The main reason seems to be that unlike official documents, due to how Japanese sentences are structured, comments on tickets often omit the subject or object in them. There are also personal notes left in Japanese that not even native Japanese speakers would understand, so in a way it is natural in some cases.
Next step "Write accurately and concisely"
So we tried to write without omitting the subject, predicate, and object. We also tried to write as concisely as possible (bullet points were recommended). This increased the accuracy of the machine translation on browsers.

Gains

Thanks to these "next step" initiatives, communication within the team is now functioning to some extent. In addition, the following benefits were also found.

More Information on Record
We all developed the habit of taking notes, even for small meetings. As a result, we have less trouble checking previous meetings and asking ourselves, "Do you remember what was the conclusion that time?"

Less Tacit Understanding
To translate into accurate English, it is necessary to clarify the subject and object implied in the Japanese context. This provided us with more opportunity to clearly define "who" will undertake this task and "what" is the target of the change. If you try, you’ll realize how surprisingly often the "who" and "what" are not clearly defined in meetings. In such situations, you will have more opportunities to check, "Was XX-san in charge of this?" This can also reduce the number of tasks left unadressed. Moreover, I sometimes hesitated to inquire, "I wonder if XX-san would do it, but I don’t feel comfortable asking..." but having the purpose of "translating into English" made it easier to clarify such questions.

More Diverse Opinions can be Expressed/Obtained
I feel that the reduction of tacit understanding and clear communication has led to "being able to say what we want to say and express diverse opinions." In addition, we are now able to incorporate more opinions from English-speaking members, which has allowed us to gain perspectives that would be difficult to notice from Japanese-speaking members alone. For example, the following idea fromTry Example of retrospective comment This was a Try from a Problem that said, "I didn’t accurately write the background and purpose of the task in the ticket," which comment is pretty serious (sorry for that) as is common in Japan. In comparison, the second English-speaking member’s suggestion to "Let’s approach it calmly" came from a completely different perspective, which made me think, "Hm, I see."

Summary

It takes a lot of effort to communicate when multiple languages are involved. However, I feel that these challenges not only affect immediate communication but also lead to new insights and the creation of proactive opinions. "Diversity is a benefit and an asset, not an obligation or cost." With this in mind, I am committed to furthering this effort.

脚注
  1. Since the entire Global Development Department comprises many members of foreign nationalities (approximately 50%), we operate in an environment where a lot of communication and documentation is in English. ↩︎

  2. Done - Learned - Next step | Glossary | JMA Consultants Inc.https://www.jmac.co.jp/glossary/n-z/ywt.html ↩︎

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