Is English actually important for engineers?May 23, 2022
You became an engineer because you love numbers, right? So, why do you have to learn how to write and present?
If you’re here, I’m assuming you’re an engineer who needs to improve your English (or you’re just a big word nerd. I see you!). Maybe you need more confidence speaking and presenting your ideas in English. Maybe you need to learn how to write in English or just improve your writing in general.
Whatever the case, today we’re going to talk about the importance of structure when learning English. We’re debunking a couple of limiting mindsets that might be holding you back from better English communication. And we’re chatting about concrete tips for speaking up in meetings – even if your English isn’t perfect.
“I’m bad at English.”
This is a very common sentiment from my engineers. If you were bad at English in school, it will be difficult to break out of your shell and speak English now.
Let me tell you a story about my friend, Christian Urich. I went to high school with Christian in Austria. Christian learned English in school like everyone else, but he struggled. Since the class was a pass/fail, he passed. His English teacher, though, asked him to never speak English again. And especially to not tell anyone that she had taught him English.
Christian followed her advice for a while. He got his equivalent of a master's degree in structural and computational engineering in Austria. He started working in Austria in structural engineering. But while working on his Ph.D. at the University of Innsbruck, he realised he wanted more.
He got a job designing sustainable urban development with mathematical and computational modelling. Not very wordy stuff.
What he didn’t realise was how international his network had become. He was working on a European project but met with Australians. He grew interested in what they were working on.
Long story short, he now lives, works, and teaches in Australia.
Once “bad at English,” he now can communicate clearly and efficiently in English at the office, in the classroom, and at home. His secret to learning technical English? Following a structure.
“Won’t I have a receptionist?”
I’m including this objection to learning English here because my very own professor said this. 🤦🏼♀️
He said we were in charge of numbers and design. Someone else could figure out the rest. And words? Our receptionist would do that for us.
While this might have worked in German and Austrian firms that loved number-based engineering back in the ‘90s, you’ll find it difficult to score projects outside of German-speaking countries if you’re not keen on words. Document-based engineering is normal around the world.
How to succeed in technical English writing
While you might have gotten away with bad English before, you now need to figure out how to communicate effectively in English. Where do you start?
If you’re working with firms that prefer document-based engineering, you’re going to need to write succinct and engaging one-page reports that interpret the numbers.
This one-page report has to include all the important aspects of the project, written so that someone can easily digest them. This might seem daunting at first, but there’s a silver lining.
You don’t have to be good at writing to write effectively. You’re not writing school essays or a novel. You’re writing a report. Every report has a structure.
Christian, my friend who was “bad at English,” thinks of this as a recipe. Oftentimes someone else gives you the recipe. You just need to put the ingredients together.
For example, your most basic report ingredients must include:
- Your aims
- How you achieve the objectives
- The conclusions
Your goal is to make your numbers digestible. Will the reader be able to understand it? Will they be able to explain it to someone who isn’t an engineer?
In this way, writing many reports and summaries doesn’t need to be especially technical at all.
It just needs to clearly communicate to your target audience.
But for most of my non-native English speaking engineers, following a simple structure will create effective reports and summaries every time. If you’re unsure which format to follow, look at previous projects or ask a colleague for their framework. Over time, you’ll be able to adjust the framework as needed.
Remember, you’re the expert. You’re not only good at calculation and design, but you’re also able to interpret these numbers into action. As long as you can communicate your findings, you’ll be golden.
How to speak business English
Speaking and presenting can be scary – especially if you’re speaking in a language as confusing as English.
Sometimes I see engineers sit out of conversations because they’re worried their English is too bad.
This is the worst thing you can do. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad your English is. It is what it is,” Christian says. The important thing is you’re communicating your ideas. Even if you believe your English is the worst, people can puzzle together what they need to know.
Here are some things to remember next time you have to speak in English.
- It’s ok if your English is broken. Many of us have been there before.
- Don’t be shy, and don’t apologise. Remember, you’re good at your job and have ideas to share.
- People are forgiving. They’re not expecting you to be a pro at English. They’re hiring you for your engineering, after all!
- Your ideas are more important than your English. Speak up and share.
Last piece of advice? Hire an English coach to level up your skills, specifically for business and technical English for engineers.
Don’t forget to learn more and surround yourself with English by listening to my podcast conversation with Christian Urich here.