In a global marketplace, having basic conversational skills in at least one foreign language sets architects apart and gets them more rewarding projects.
Using those languages doesn’t just open the door to more opportunities abroad. It also deepens such experiences and allows the architect to take in more of the human context of those built environments, not to mention connecting more personally with local collaborators and stakeholders.
Besides these active benefits, there are a couple of more subtle advantages. Second language study has been shown to improve communication skills even in one’s native tongue. Beyond communication, problem-solving skills have also been observed to improve when individuals go through the language learning process.
Do you want to help your international team members integrate into a new culture?
Taking Verbal Communication More Seriously
That communication is integral to design is drilled into every student. This maxim is so familiar to architects that over time it loses its gravity.
Of course, architects know that the consequences of poor communication can be dire. But understanding the importance of something is not the same as appreciating that it’s hard, or knowing the difference between good enough and excellent.
In fact, the architect who knows their strengths and weaknesses almost always achieves better project outcomes than the one who takes the “soft” aspects of their work for granted.
Architects have access to a vast inventory of visual communication, and many are more comfortable expressing their ideas this way. But clients, stakeholders, and sometimes even builders may not share their sharp eyes. Sometimes verbal language is the only way to trigger a true understanding of what they’re looking at. The words need to cut through.
All kinds of intellectual professionals feel that they are speaking simply and clearly when they are not. Mastery over words is a serious discipline.
Second language learning is an unusual practice because it renders visible the complexities of something we think is easy. We learn our native languages through instinct as children and use them every day without paying attention. It takes going through the process of learning a new one to realize just how remarkable our brains are for processing language.
All of this is to say that learning a language makes you better at active listening, as well as speaking in a way that holds the attention of your own listeners and makes it easier for them to grasp your meaning.
The True Value of Travel for Architects
New technologies, such as those that permit sealed, climate-controlled environments, threaten to contribute to homogenization and the loss of character around the world.
One form of dissent against this is to reject technological advancement or retreat into the strictly local. A more effective response, in tune with the music of history, might be to advocate for a more authentic internationalism.
Architects who work around the world have a role to play in preserving and promoting local traditions. As the discourse of architecture becomes global, architects can amplify the voices of those communities where they have worked and learned.
Borrowing patterns or solutions from different cultures is one thing, but it takes deeper immersion to understand the link between a design and the ways of life it supports.
While the archetypal modern professional is a global citizen who knows a little about many different cultures, architects should perhaps aim to know a lot about those that inspire them the most. For this, reading and observing from a distance are not sufficient. Personal, human connection is a prerequisite to know a place and its life.
It’s true that many successful architects work all over the world, supported only by the strength of English as the international lingua franca. They will generally have an easy time talking to other white-collar professionals, and will find no shortage of opinions about what makes up the essence of a culture from its most highly educated representatives.
But for the architect who really wants to understand, this comfortable bubble gets in the way. Breaking out of it requires connecting with people who don’t always have great English and perhaps don’t share your view of the world. It means being vulnerable and open to changing your mind.
Such is the difference between the architect who is swept up in the discourse and the architect who can influence the discourse. When you only use English, the question of whether a local design tradition will survive is usually already settled. Learning another language brings you into contact with situations where there’s still something to be said.
These efforts form the foundations of a meaningful international career, rich in human connection, remarkable experiences, and the ingredients of invention.
On a practical note, even attitudes to the organization of work and project management can differ between countries.
How Project Delivery Approaches Vary Between Cultures
Communication styles: Different norms and expectations can include the level of directness, formality, and the relative importance of non-verbal cues.
Planning and scheduling: In some regions it’s more common to plan and schedule a project in minute detail, while in others flexibility is more valued. Attitudes toward project management software can also vary, as well as the roles of stakeholders in the planning process.
Contractual relationships: The use and structure of contracts can vary greatly between countries, including the use of lump-sum, cost-plus, or time-and-materials contracts.
Roles and responsibilities: The division of labor and the allocation of responsibilities between stakeholders, such as the owner, architect, contractor, and subcontractors, can also vary.
Procurement processes: Bidding and award processes can differ between countries and may include elements such as prequalification, site visits, and the use of performance bonds.
Risk management: Different cultures approach risk management in wildly different ways. Some use the vocabulary of risk avoidance, others of risk transfer. The level of respect for individuals or organizations seen as bold risk takers also varies.
Change management: The process of making changes to the project scope, budget, or schedule can differ in its level of formality. In some regions, change is more conversational, being seen as a negotiation. In others, it’s understood as a highly structured process requiring strict oversight.
Quality management: Quality control and quality assurance processes can also vary substantially between countries.
Attitudes toward trust: Different places have their own legal systems and business practices. Some cultures may place a stronger emphasis on the use of contracts, while others may rely more on reputation and personal recommendations. What’s more, some business environments thrive on long-term relationships and cooperation, while others may value quick results and competition more highly.
It’s good for architects to encounter different approaches to collaboration. What makes a great operator is the ability to drive a project toward the most successful outcome possible based on the real conditions and constraints.
Once again, language is the key to overcoming the assumption of “normal” and “abnormal” that tends to arise when different ways of working make contact.
First, the language learning process itself lets us see our own cultural norms as distinctive rather than standard. Later, being able to have conversations with others using a little of each native language means that we can build trust and mutually observe the reality of two systems coming into contact, each with its own inclinations, but with the ability to adapt.
Language Learning Builds Cognitive Flexibility
Learning and using a second language can challenge an architect’s mental concepts and enhance their ability to think critically.
The effort gradually trains executive inhibition and impulse control, as it takes careful application to maintain focus when using the target language. It also results in frequent switching between two different cognitive frameworks, which is a superb exercise for improving creative problem-solving, as well as overall mental acuity.
Do you want to help your international team members integrate into a new culture?
Introducing Lingvist for Business
The architect who chooses to learn a language sets themselves apart by exhibiting a willingness to understand another culture. This garners esteem and trust from native speakers, making cross-cultural collaborations more effective.
A fulfilling career is not just about financial success, but the impact one has on the world. Learning a new language, especially one that holds personal interest, creates opportunities to amplify that impact.
The world of architecture is becoming increasingly globalized, and architects who are multilingual are well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities this presents. Being able to communicate directly with clients and suppliers in their own languages gives architects a competitive edge.
Architects who can speak another language also have a deeper understanding of the cultural context of the projects they work on, which can lead to better, more culturally appropriate designs that are meaningful to the people who use them.
Language learning is challenging and can be time-consuming, but learners can build a vocabulary efficiently with Lingvist. By using it for about 10 minutes a day, users can focus their efforts on learning the most useful words.
What’s more, architects can upload their own texts to Lingvist, instantly generating a customized course focused on the technical jargon and linguistic quirks of the profession.
Progress is rapid, as Lingvist’s spaced repetition algorithm continuously challenges the learner with the words they’re just about to forget, and presents new words just beyond the edge of their current knowledge.