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My father works for a medium-sized enterprise in Germany as an electrical engineer, most recently focused on calculating costs for larger projects and producing price quotes. He never studied at university but was trained as an electrician and worked his way up. Because of this there was never a real need for him to learn English.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a shift in the kind of work he is doing. He has temporarily been assigned to a larger project from a different subsection of his department, as his own section has no new work available right now. This is challenging because all of the extremely technical documentation is in English.

My father and his boss have a good relationship, he is also valued by his colleagues for his decades of experience. He has been working for this company for about 5 years and is paid substantially more than his colleagues, that all hold university degrees in CS or electrical engineering. The thing is, I feel like everybody just assumes he is fluent in English, while his English is indeed quite poor.

As both of us are working from home right now I see how much he is struggling. While DeepL certainly helps the language barrier is high.

I wonder what would be the best course of action right now? I mean I try to help him but he feels very bad occasionally asking me for help, and secondly I fear that he will be assigned more work in the future in English.(*) The situation is quite delicate as most people in his position would usually be expected to be fluent in English.

I know this question is a bit unfocused, but I would like to hear some advice or opinions on the issue.

(*) Edit: This may very well not be the case. There are already larger projects related with his usual work coming up. Still it could happen.

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    Is there anything in written somewhere about the expected English level for the position he holds? If it was never mentioned before, or if he got the position with them knowing his level, I would say it's faire for him to just report that to his manager. – Laurent S. May 20 '20 at 14:42
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    He needs to inform his manager as soon as he notices this is becoming a problem. Paying an English course for their otherwise highly skilled longterm employee is going to be much cheaper than potential errors introduced by easily avoidable misunderstandings. – Llewellyn May 20 '20 at 18:47
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    Is there a reason that you don't trust your father's judgement of how he should handle the situation he's in? – Player One May 20 '20 at 20:59
  • Just a quick tip - your father most likely has more problems with the technical terms than with conversational English. I would suggest studying English-language textbooks on Electrical Engineering or English-language tutorial videos on YouTube etc. Even though your father will understand the concepts already, this is a very good way to get familiar with the English technical terminology. – Joe Stevens Jun 2 '20 at 9:55
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    @JoeStevens: The suggestion to go for English textbooks is good - even though my experience (as someone fluent in English and German when working in Italy) is that technical terms were much easier for me to understand than everyday language. A EE example would be: the translation Kondensator = capacitor may seem non-trivial at first glance. But: capacity C is Kapazität in German - and there is even a colloquial use that refers to the Kondensator as "eine Kapazität". – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 20 '20 at 15:53
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Prior Answers focus on how to learn english, or how to ask clarification questions. But there is an obvious action to take first:

Make the boss aware of the situation. This is something the boss has to know, and maybe he also can offer help on the resolution. Helping his employees succeed and grow is the responsibility of a manager. Providing guidance how to eliminate shortcomings should be high on his priority list.

This also helps your father later, if there is a misunderstanding because of language or a slower progress because of the language. The manager now knows the reason and can act accordingly.

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If he wants to learn privately, I recommend using one of the well-known English language learning or ESL software packages out there. He can probably borrow it from one of your excellent libraries. Some ESL programs are tailored for people with a specific mother tongue.

For streaming media, there might be a "Language > English" setting. Watching a whole TV series in another language helps make it familiar.

For formal written communications, such as proposals, he should find similar documents in English to use as a template, add his information, and then hire the services of an English or bilingual editor to polish the document.

In many organizations with a global workforce and for informal communications, it is acceptable and normal to use "approximate" English.

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I would say the first thing to do is get the fact that his English isn't completely fluent out of the way. For anything that is likely to require fluent English mention it when communicating with a new person for the first time. If they want they can say something like "Ordinarilly I work entirely with German language speakers and documentation but due to the current situation I am helping out with this work". Adding some context makes the information about fluency seem less like an isolated, random, fact.

I am a native English speaker but sometimes I read documents that I can't understand. Either because the writer was in a rush and made mistakes or they didn't understand what they were asking for or that I didn't understand something about the business process. A technique that is sometimes effective is to restate what they said they want as simply as you can and ask them to confirm, or say you will proceed on that basis unless they disagree.

For example I might reply to a requirement that I thought was confusing and including a lot of information that I thought was spurious with something like this : - "My undestanding is that you want all the cashflows for these five codes to be inverted (ie: multiplied by -1) at the point they are loaded and all downstream calculations will treat them as the updated values from that point onwards."

He might add "I will proceed on that basis unless you indicate otherwise" or "Is that correct" depending on how confident you are in your interpretation.

Whether this works depends a lot on how good your father's English already is but if he can mostly understand complex technical documents it must be quite good already.

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  • Most of this only applies when talking to people directly, but much less to reading documentation. It also assumes a level of English (being able to explain difficult concepts in his own words) that OP's father might not have. – Llewellyn May 20 '20 at 18:37

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