Overcoming challenges and advancing English for your job
Updated: Sep 11
Lucy and I started working together 9 years ago! Gosh, time flies! She had just graduated from the Master of Landscape Architecture from Melbourne University, and we both arrived in Bendigo ready to work on landscape architecture projects in regional Victoria. I had already been working for five years, but I still felt I had so much to learn from her.
When we first met, I admired her tenacity, her drive and hey artistic drawing skills. I was continually impressed by her ability never to see anything as an obstacle. She was always up for the challenge. What impressed me the most was, as well as learning to be the best landscape architect she could be; she did all this while trying to improve her English and settling into a new culture. It never ceases to amaze me when people come from overseas, and they take on the challenge of learning English while working despite apparent obstacles. Once I moved to France, and I started to do the same thing, I gained valuable first-hand experience and insight into these challenges.
Many years later, Lucy's skills are sharp thanks to hard work and determination. She could run rings around me when it comes to managing projects. We recently started working together but this time in a different capacity. Lucy has allowed me to work closely with her to advance her communication skills and in true Lucy style, she's promised to make sure I'm learning too by making sure I keep up with my yoga!
I interviewed Lucy because I believe she has some precious insight to offer other people who speak languages other than English, and who come to live and work in Australia or other English speaking countries and who might feel challenged in their new environment.
Tara: How long have you been living in Australia now?
Lucy: 11 years.
Tara: Wow, time flies! Can you tell us about your studies in Landscape Architecture?
Lucy: I did my masters degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Melbourne. It was a two-year course and very academic-focused. Looking back now, I hoped we could have learnt a bit more about how to practice as a landscape architect at Uni, so we could be 'work ready' when we graduate. Outside study, I made friends with international students from other countries. Some of them still my best friends today. It was hard to make friends with local students due to the language barrier, but hanging out with international students from other countries definitely helped to improve my English language skills and to build confidence in communication.
Tara: Before arriving in Australia, what experience did you have with English? Did you feel confident?
Lucy: I had a basic English foundation, and I did an English course and a test as part of the requirement for my student visa. The test (which I failed twice in writing) is very academic-focused. I passed the test eventually and got my visa, of course. But, I was not confident the moment I arrived in Australia.
Tara: It's so hard when you first arrive, primarily because of the accent and the expressions!
When you first arrived in Australia, what challenged you?
Lucy: Absolutely - the accent and expressions are hard! It was hard to follow on with the lectures at Uni. Thank god I had friends who were attending the same class as me. We could go through the lectures together after class, which helped a lot. It was hard to do simple things for daily life like explain yourself when buying a train ticket or opening a bank account. However, it helped to know other people were aware that you were from a different country, so there is no shame about misusing any words or struggling with expressing anything unclear. Just go for it!
Tara: For everyone reading this, where did you meet me?
Lucy: In my first job in Bendigo after my graduation. We used to catch the train together to Bendigo from Melbourne! That was a crazy commute!
Tara: Sometimes, you have to take your chances and although it may have been a challenge to commute, at least we met each other through that experience!
You told me recently that I helped you with your emails when we first started working with each other. Can you explain how I helped you?
Lucy: You said: write your email like a letter - keep it simple and professional and straight to the point. My understanding was once I wrote my email, I should read it and shorten it and use dot points where I can. I am still doing the same thing today. I shorten my emails wherever I can because no one wants to read an essay!
Tara: You also discussed how a friend helped you overcome some of the challenges when speaking on the phone. Can you explain the valuable advice she gave you?
Lucy: When I first started working, it was difficult to remember what other person said over the other end of the phone, or even their names sometimes. So my friend from Brazil shared her experience with me. She told me to take note of what I heard from the other end of the phone and repeat to that person and ask them to confirm if that's correct. eg. "You said you want to include this, is that correct?" It worked! I became more and more confident in answering the phone and also conversation with in general.
Tara: How long have you been working as a landscape architect now? Are you registered? What has been a highlight of your career so far?
Lucy: I have been working as an LA in Australian for nine years now. I am registered with the Australian Institution of Landscape Architects. One of the highlights of my career has been in my current job. I am the first Chinese person to run Contract Administration projects. I can see my employer places trust in me, and I would say that I'm proud of myself for this.
Tara: When you first started working, what are some of the challenges you faced, and how did you overcome these challenges?
Lucy: Being a graduate and someone who came from overseas, in my experience, you can get stuck doing graphics and not often getting opportunities to do design work or project management. I think it's important to raise this issue with your employers in a diplomatic way and be prepared to explain why you are qualified to be given other opportunities or how you can improve certain areas so you will be entrusted with opportunities to grow.
Tara: How have some of your colleagues helped you over the years?
Lucy: I am forever grateful for the help Tara has given me over the years. It was difficult working in Bendigo, which is a country town totally different from the big city where I came from previously. As a graduate, you really don't know much. Tara was a few years senior in her work experience when we started working together, and she helped me with CAD skills, writing, verbal communication as well as helped me to build confidence in working with other colleagues in the office. I also have a mentor in my current company, and this really helps a lot. In particular, in terms of how to communicate with clients, consultants, contractors and Councils.
Tara: What advice would you give someone who is working in an English speaking country as has arrived from a non-English speaking place and feeling challenged at work because of their confidence in English? What sorts of things do you think helped you?
Lucy: I would say to focus on listening and taking note and remembering how other people use words to communicate and how they interact. I think it's important to repeat what they say. Then you can use it next time on your own. Never be afraid to express yourself in front of native speakers. Go for it and just speak! The more you use a language, the quicker you learn it. The work of Landscape architecture covers a wide range of things from planting design to contract administration and dealing with several different stakeholders. They are all very different tasks when you think about it. At the end of the day, we can't be good at all things, but I think it's helpful at some stage of our career to figure out how to specialise in something.
Tara: If you were given the opportunity, would you mentor someone else in the same situation as you?
Lucy: Yes, absolutely!
Tara: Thanks, Lucy, for this insightful interview. I think this will be helpful for a lot of people in a similar situation. I couldn't agree more that it's essential never to be afraid to express yourself in front of native speakers and why it is important to have a mentor to help you.
If confidence with English is something, you find challenging; I also believe it's essential to have someone outside of work who you trust to help you build your confidence. When you have someone outside of work to practice and discuss the things you encounter at work, it relieves the pressure of having to always perform at your best with the benefit of useful advice. You have the time and space to discuss the things you might not necessarily have the time to address at work. That person can be anyone, as long as you trust the person, and it gives you the confidence you need. I aim to be that person for my students, as I allow them to discuss the tricky questions, to present their projects and discuss the best ways to communicate to get their message across so that they can make the impact and the impression they deserve to make.
If you're interested in finding out how we can work together, you can send an email to email@example.com
I look forward to hearing your story. Do you know someone who has a similar story to Lucy, who has valuable insight to share with other professionals? I'd love to hear from you, too.