English advice from a senior vice president who learned on the job

laptop on blueprints in foreground of construction site
Building rapport in English

One of our teachers had the opportunity to interview a Japanese business person who has worked in 11 different countries including Singapore, Malaysia, America, Thailand, the Philippines and the Congo over about 40 years. 

To the outside world, he is an expert in the construction industry. He has led international construction projects around the world. But to me, he’s my dad. 

When I was a kid, the running joke in our family was that he was the least fluent English speaker (among myself, my Chinese Malaysian stepmother, and him), but he accomplished the most with his English. I thought his insights and advice might help some English learners who are in the same shoes, so without further ado, here’s what he had to say:

Q: Where was the toughest country to work for you?

A: America. I had lived and worked in Singapore and Malaysia for 10 years, using English every day. When we moved to New York, I was shocked to realize that I couldn’t understand them, and they couldn’t understand me. It was easier for me to understand an Asian person’s English because it was more similar to my own style. Also, people in Singapore and Malaysia would treat me with respect because they respected my title. New Yorkers didn’t care. I was senior vice president at the time, but that meant nothing. It was all about performance. And if they couldn’t understand me, all of my skills would stay hidden. I really had to learn how to be persuasive, make suggestions and give explanations in English. Otherwise, they would see and treat me like a child, whether it was at work or the supermarket.

Q: But you lived there for nine years! Were you able to improve over that time, and what did you do?

A: Yes, of course. The first two and a half years were unbelievably hard. I had to focus on listening because that was the first step. Learning pronunciation and liaisons helped with this, too, because something like “get it right” wouldn’t be pronounced the way it’s written, with spaces and breaks in between. It was pronounced like one word, “ge-di-rai(t)”. I had to learn these patterns to make a connection in my head so that when I heard them, I would immediately understand. I would listen to the same thing over and over again to do this. The next step was to learn set phrases. There are two keys to this:

  1. Learn natural phrases that native speakers actually use. If you just learn the English version of what a Japanese person would say, no one’s going to use that.
  2. Don’t just remember them in your head. That doesn’t help you at all because you won’t be able to use the phrase when you’re speaking. You need to make it automatic so you can use it without translating or thinking. In order to do this, you actually have to use your mouth and voice. I would practice phrases out loud even when I was walking somewhere. Once you remember a phrase pattern, you can just change it according to the situation.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake Japanese people make overseas?

A: They pretend they understand what they’re hearing and give an answer that has nothing to do with the question. I saw many Japanese people do this in business and had to jump in and help often. You can’t gain someone’s trust if you only give your opinions and don’t listen to others. Listening is crucial. If you can’t understand something, just ask. It also helps to ask people to write it down. What you hear and what you see can be very different.


Q: I remember you learned the language of almost every country you worked in, not just English. If somebody was to work in a country where English wasn’t the native language, would you recommend doing that?

A: It’s helpful to build rapport with locals, but it’s not a must. The actual business part is done in English, so people can just focus on that, in my opinion.


Talking to my dad has made me curious. What are some study tools or practices that have helped you improve your English skills? If you haven't already, book a lesson with one of teachers and share your experiences!

running joke [noun phrase]—a joke that is repeated within a group of people.
in someone's shoes [idiomatic phrase]—in someone's situation; in this post, it means "in the same situation".
without further ado [idiomatic phrase]—without waiting any longer. In English, we often use this after an introduction and before we get to the point.
liaisons [noun plural]—the linking of words to each other so they sound connected.
rapport [noun]—a good relationship with mutual trust.