Hello everyone! I am Kostas from Greece and I moved to Japan for Money Forward in October 2023. My team is based in Fukuoka and is responsible for the IC card reader system. We are also bringing a challenging experiment to the table: having English as our main language of communication.
Money Forward aims to adopt English as the main language of communication between engineers by the end of FY24. The company has several branches across the country, with most employees, including our international colleagues, working in the Tokyo office.
While our Japanese colleagues have been undertaking English courses to prepare for this transition, some teams lack the motivation to use English in their everyday work since their network mainly consists of Japanese engineers.
This also holds true for our Fukuoka branch, where I am currently the only person without proficiency in Japanese.
Working with people from diverse cultures introduces challenges in several domains, such as communication style (direct vs indirect) and decision-making (hierarchical vs flat). This might sound difficult, but in the past I participated in intercultural trainings that are designed to tackle these issues. They teach you about values such as individualism, hierarchical relationships and uncertainty avoidance, and they explain where each culture lands on these dimensions.
Cultural dimensions often rely on stereotypes and theories, but can help us develop our cultural self-awareness and understanding of other people.
What those trainings cannot teach you is how to overcome language barriers, which often pose the biggest challenge in multicultural workplaces. So, let’s address the elephant in the room.
Language barriers are tough for everyone to breach, since speech is the main way we express our thoughts and feelings to other people. According to my Japanese colleagues, the high school education system focuses on reading and writing, but not on speaking, which is highly important for good communication. Combined with the educational culture of discouraging mistakes and the scarcity of English content on local TV programs, Japan often ranks low in global surveys assessing English proficiency.
Hopefully, the situation will improve in the future, as the education system is shifting towards emphasizing speaking and listening skills. Learning a language is considerably easier for young people, but as we become older and have other priorities in life, practicing a new language can be particularly challenging. Despite these obstacles, people around me are putting tremendous efforts into improving their English communication skills, by participating in classes and studying in groups.
I often apologize to my colleagues for making them go through this demanding transition, yet I really admire their determination and hard work.
If learning a new language is such a challenge, why is a successful company like Money Forward trying to change the way everyone communicates with each other? There are a couple of reasons for this.
The most obvious reason is expanding the skillset and background of the engineering community. Introducing English as our main language allows HR to bring in talent from all around the world, giving us the opportunity to learn from skilled individuals and enhance our engineering capabilities.
Another less obvious but just as important reason is having diversity in the workplace.
Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) are hot topics in businesses all around the world, enhancing the quality of work environments and providing opportunities for minorities to shine.
Multicultural diversity is only a small part of D&I, but an important one nonetheless. Working with people from various cultures can bring significant benefits to the company, such as discovering new ways to collaborate and evolving our work culture. Depending on the company, diversity can also lead to a larger market share and a more positive reputation. Theoretical stuff aside, let’s talk about the current situation.
The Englishnization of Money Forward is a topic that has been discussed for several years, so the latest figures look promising.
“About 30% of our engineers are non-Japanese.”
Mr. Nakade, CTO of Money Forward (source: article, September 2022)
When I visited our Tokyo office, I could hear a lot of people talking in English to each other. However, other regional branches have yet to catch up. In our Fukuoka office, there are several teams working for various products, but currently there is only one person that does not speak Japanese.
Shifting our communication methods to a different language will take a long time, but our team of three engineers (Team Yatai) aims to take the initiative in making the transition to English for our department.
Everyone is aware that this transition won’t be a walk in the park.
A significant amount of people can already communicate in English and some brave colleagues approach me and have casual discussions when I work at the office. However, there are also many engineers lacking the confidence or vocabulary to express their thoughts in a foreign language. Given this range in English proficiency, we need to be extra careful when deciding on communication guidelines and changing our ways of working.
I have a dream. In the far future, people will be able to talk to each other, exchange opinions, write their messages, and tell jokes in a common language.
To many people, including me, this dream might sound far-fetched and almost impossible to materialize. However, this article is one of hope, so let’s break down this vision into incremental steps and see how we can achieve it in a natural way.
Written communication is much easier to translate to another language, thanks to the availability of translation tools, such as DeepL Pro and Google Translate. In the far vision of Englishnization that extends much further than FY24, all messages will be written in English, including important topics and casual discussions. However, if I were to ask my colleagues to completely switch their casual messages to English, there would be a lot of tension and constructive feedback.
It must feel unnatural for Japanese engineers to message each other in a different language. It must be difficult, too.
To make this transition simpler, we are thinking of a multistep approach. It is easy to understand that important announcements should be understood by everyone. We need to make sure that all engineers, both Japanese and non-Japanese, feel included and respected during this long process of Englishnization, so we have already asked that all important messages are written in both English and Japanese.
Once people feel comfortable using English to a certain extent, we are thinking of switching the language only in the first message of each Slack thread. Then, we can finally extend the guidelines to the thread replies and casual discussions.
This will be a long process, and misunderstandings and confusion are inevitable with such ambitious and bold requests. I hope that I can help my colleagues feel included and positively challenged during the transition. Time will tell, and my ears will be open for feedback.
Spoken communication is much trickier to translate, as it requires a different way of thinking. In my team we are trying to have all our discussions in English, but outside our own team, we will continue to rely on our skillful interpreters to successfully bridge our language barriers.
I expect the spoken communication to take several years to transition. However, waiting does not improve our speaking skills, so sometimes I try to challenge people around me to practice and increase their confidence in English. It’s important to take our time and not rush this process, but I also would like to see everyone around me grow and develop their skills.
Some colleagues already try to switch their language when they are around me, and that gives me a warm and optimistic feeling.
Introducing guidelines is important to communicate our expectations and collect feedback. However, rules alone cannot change one’s behaviour nor improve one’s language skills. I want to make sure that everyone has opportunities to practice their English conversational skills and I would like to make this learning process as fun as possible.
Within our team, all meetings and discussions take place in English, so there are plenty of opportunities for connection and language practice. We have also introduced daily casual meetings to get to know each other and to practice speaking in English.
Talking about our day, or talking about our favorite anime, anything goes.
Outside our team, many colleagues would like to practice their English, but there are fewer opportunities to do so.
For example, eating lunch together with other teams, or gathering around the Omiyage table and sharing delicious snacks are both great ways to start conversations. Happy Hour, our bimonthly office gatherings, is an excellent opportunity to break the ice and talk freely to each other. However, there are only so many social gatherings each year, and I find it important to have more frequent and natural conversations at the office.
Being the first person that does not speak Japanese in our Fukuoka office, I feel a deep responsibility to support my colleagues with this shift of communication in our workplace.
The first initiative I introduced is Coffee Meetings, casual 1-1 chats with anyone that would like to hone their speaking skills. These sessions can either revolve around specific topics or be completely free-form, allowing people to be prepared or casually chat.
Other ideas that are being discussed are networking events, games, and other team-building activities that are centered around simple conversation topics and are designed to promote diversity and communication. This is still work in progress and I hope that my colleagues will get to have fun while practicing their English.
Addressing a situation, especially one as complex as language barriers, is a challenging task for an individual. Therefore, it is important to shift our HR efforts towards increasing the number of non-Japanese members in our Fukuoka office.
Having more foreigners around will naturally create more opportunities for English conversations, and the motivation to switch our spoken language will also increase.
Until then, we will continue gradually introducing guidelines for written communication, creating opportunities for casual discussions, and moving forward towards this challenging transition.
The Englishnization journey will extend well beyond FY24.
Inclusivity is important, and as we brainstorm ways to make this transition feel more natural and less forced for everyone, we acknowledge that there will be a lot of difficulties and confusion. What’s crucial at this point is 1-1 discussions and feedback, feedback, feedback.
Being the only person unable to understand conversations in Japanese, there can be unintentional isolation during online meetings, social gatherings, and office discussions. I often share my feelings and thoughts with my colleagues in Fukuoka, and everyone is very open for discussions and is trying their best to make me feel welcome.
I have also witnessed significant changes in the couple of months that I have worked here. Several people are already making an effort to include English in their Slack messages, and various events, such as English lunch sessions and study sessions, are being scheduled every week, providing opportunities for language practice.
Being the odd one out can also result in a positive spotlight.
Recently, our department organized a team building event and there were some activities for people to interact with each other and have fun. The activities included a song guessing game, where it was possible to participate regardless of age or ethnicity, which felt very motivating and inclusive.
At a different event, we were all asked to read out loud some parts of a farewell script. To help me out, they provided an English translation of the script, and the words I needed to read were written in Romaji. It’s these little details that make me feel included, and I’m grateful for the efforts and thoughtfulness of my colleagues.
The company has also provided me with a group of supporters who are helping me with language and cultural gaps. They are always happy to answer my random questions and I feel lucky to have them around.
Last but not least, my direct teammates and supervisors are putting in the most effort to ensure I feel included in this new environment. “Teamwork makes the dream work” and this transition would not be possible without the enormous help of my team.
Setting challenges aside, everyone has been very supportive and understanding, and our Fukuoka office is a great place to be. I feel excited for the future of Money Forward and reviewing the situation in a few years from now.
Together with everyone’s efforts and valuable feedback, we will be able to Move Fukuoka’s Talent Forward.