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How Learning Another Language Has Made Me A More E...

How Learning Another Language Has Made Me A More Empathic Designer

Image: Calligraphy, by James Kim


Learning another language is a huge, sometimes overwhelming endeavor, but I feel it has made me a million times more aware of everything, from my surroundings to what people are saying – be it in French or English.

I moved to Montréal from London, and entered into an immersive experience at work a few months after arriving. I had taken French as a second language throughout elementary and high school, but the structure of this learning didn’t really stick. Language retention requires a lot of exposure and practice; learning it without a lot of speaking just doesn’t do the trick.

‘Hacking’ comprehension

My first day of work began with a Monday morning team meeting.

Totally in French.

You think you know active listening? I’ll show you active listening! That morning felt very intense. I probably picked up about 10% of the content. I jotted down phrases and words that I heard and didn’t really understand. Especially those I heard a lot.

Through this process, I learned to ‘cut’ lots of phrases from the ‘active listening’ roster. Especially, filler words which are really commonly used and normally don’t matter. For instance, to connect two ideas we can say: “additionally”, “so”, “as well”, “and”, etc. It doesn’t really matter which one you pick, but as a listener, you need to recognize all of them.

I began to recognize these ‘inefficiencies’ in French and English conversations. For French, I was thankful because skipping over filler phrases gave me 1-2 seconds of bonus comprehension time, giving my synapses a chance to catch up. Continuous translation consumes processing time.

Finding meaning

I found myself developing insight into establishing the central point or thesis of what another person is saying, with a precision/awareness that I hadn’t experienced before. There was a sense of urgency to understanding what was happening, and I needed to use all the tools at my disposal. I dipped in and out of French comprehension. So, when I didn’t know exactly what the words meant, I learned to use body language and any bits of context (visual cues, names of things, background info) I could grab to get to the essence of the conversation.

Sometimes the feeling of the speaker is actually the most important part of what they are saying. For example, at critical junctures I can ‘get the feeling’ that strategy is going to change drastically on something we’re working on. Nobody knows exactly what this will mean, so nothing is said out loud that really matters (or is concrete as such), but I’ve used these nonverbal methods to see these things coming.

This process of active observation, grabbing the thesis, highlighting important words (and contextual clues) became instinctive over a fairly short time, and it has transferred into my conversations in English as well. I have a sort of active mindfulness about the central point, word choices and what isn’t being said through body language.

Now, when I interview users for example, I can pick up on important, sometimes unsaid points and explore them. I’m faster to synthesize what the person has said and help build a ‘line of inquiry’ related to that. I get to the feeling of what they’re all about quite quickly and dig into the important stuff around that. I’ve found myself much more in the moment and comfortable interviewing after this experience.

Thinking differently

The other thing about learning a new language is the opportunity to have two different sets of logic in your everyday being. French uses grammatical structures that are significantly different from English, so you need to think through what you want to communicate in a different way, before speaking and while speaking. This involves some brain-bending, but these logical structures do become second nature with tons of practice. Now, sometimes I find myself preferring the French way of doing things.

My new dual perspective lets me see the linguistic deficits and strengths of these two languages. For example, in English you can address multiple people with  “you” (which can feel oddly confrontational), “y’all” (which I like, but belongs to the southern States from what I can tell), “guys” (which people my dad’s age object to and may be gender-specific, depending on who you talk to) and; “folks” (which conjures a down to earth feeling, which isn’t great for just any situation). On the other hand, French has “vous” – and it works all the time.

Building empathy

Using another logic toolkit in everyday life experience has helped me realise how my own framework informs my thought structure. I believe that stepping into another frame of reference gives you a sense of empathy more fundamentally. It’s not a concrete, but rather abstract or intuitive thing. It’s about internalizing the concept that others experience their world in a framework other than my own and I should pay attention to my own assumptions more carefully.

To sum it up, the best way to describe my newfound way of listening is that I’ve learned to grasp a point using any means necessary, integrating a wide assortment of perceptions to tell what someone is really communicating.

This kind of multimodality isn’t that much different from good design. Good design ‘works’ by communicating the precise information (with words), emphasizing priority of information (contrast between font sizes) and communicating a feeling (with imagery and color).

In my work as a designer now, I find myself transferring this skill of multimodal perception into my work.  I integrate all the perceptual elements that are present to anticipate how the reader or user will feel while experiencing what I am creating. As a result, I feel I am doing better work, and I’m grateful for the enhanced awareness that has come with being immersed in a new language.


Ceara Crawshaw

Ceara is a science type turned creative, turned User Experience Designer. She’s forever curious about how data can inform design and the many emerging ways of thinking and interacting in our increasingly technological environment.