Like roughly 18 percent of Americans, I am monolingual.
From an economic perspective, language learning has costs, money and mental bandwidth. When making choices about resource allocation I often consider my professional goals, preferring to expand my knowledge and proficiency in areas that are directly related to my work, both professionally and as an artist.
Professionally, my mother tongue is the de facto language of global business so my career has not been hampered by my reliance on English.
In May and June of 2013 I was living in Berlin, Germany. I could have easily gotten by with only English but I learned enough German to navigate only the most basic of interactions; ordering coffee, social niceties and the essential “Ich kann nein Deustch sprechen, entshuldigung”. Generally, it seemed like people appreciated my hackneyed attempts and I had fun stumbling through day-to-day life in German.
It wasn’t until I did some professional networking that I ran into problems. Berlin’s vibrant start-up scene made it was easy to arrange informal interviews with people and projects looking for talent. By the end of the second meeting I’d set up, it had become abundantly clear that without access to high-level language ability, I was almost useless in a German context.
Online community management leverages different abilities, from good problem solving skills to familiarity with behavioral economics and concepts underlying UX design but without a language in common with the community, this expertise loses its usefulness.
Successful community managers write with clarity using contextually appropriate voice and are masters of tact. They pick up on subtle clues about a user’s emotional state when they read and can easily distill written communiques with users into useful feedback. Without this level of language proficiency, a community manager is limited in their efficacy.
My experience in Germany gave me an interesting perspective on the skills required to excel at community management and reminded me of the value in developing and maintaining excellent writing and reading skills in whatever language is the most relevant to your work.