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6 Lessons for Working in a Non-Native Language from Automattic’s Naoko Takano

Naoko Takano's title alone suggests how comfortable she is switching cultures: she is a Globalizer at mission-driven tech company Automattic, whose products include WooCommerce, Jetpack, Tumblr, and WordPress.com.

Naoko's job involves working with volunteers in the WordPress community to translate materials and run other localization projects.

"It's about transferring the idea—not so much about just translation, but doing the messaging, and getting people excited," Naoko explains.

Long before she joined Automattic, Naoko had opportunities to practice transferring and communicating complicated ideas across cultures, first as a Japanese exchange student in the U.S., then as a working professional for American companies, and later as a freelancer working with clients around the world.

We sat down with Naoko to hear more about her career journey, how her relationship with language has evolved, and what advice she has for members of global teams working to communicate across languages, countries, and cultures.

Building a Base of Biculturalism

Naoko is based in Tokyo, Japan, but had previously spent 13 years living in the U.S. before returning to her home country.

Her first stay in the States was as a high school exchange student in Missouri. The lack of other Japanese speakers forced her to work on her English, but her confidence took a while to catch up. "Until the last couple of years in college, I was very quiet and didn't like to be in the spotlight," she says.

Recognizing that parts of her personality changed depending on her linguistic context was an important early lesson, as it has taught her to use patience and empathy when working with other people who weren't communicating in their first language. "I'm more outgoing in Japanese," explains Naoko, smiling.

Naoko had initially returned to Japan to finish high school, but didn't like the experience. "Japanese schools are very strict, and they cram in learning at school and after school," says Naoko. "In the States, I thought learning was fun, and even though it was difficult, I could really feel the progress."

At home, Naoko experienced a period of burnout and depression so intense that she stopped attending school—know as futōkō (不登校) in Japan—it was that experience which inspired her to return to the States to pursue education in an environment that worked better for her. (This taught her another key lesson about the importance of surrounding herself with people and places that are aligned with her values, as she has during her 12-year career at Automattic.)

While Japanese had been her favorite subject in her home country, she didn't think she could switch to studying English literature and have the same result. "It'd be hard to keep up or do well," she says. "Another thing I liked was art, so I studied graphic communication."

Visual art and design was another way of communicating, after all. And it led her to her dream career—albeit indirectly.

Learning Alone and Learning with Others

Naoko started her career doing freelance web design. When she graduated college, blogs were just starting to become popular. She'd tried a few other platforms before finding WordPress in 2003, just a few months after co-founders Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little first released it, and she immediately committed herself to it.

"I was always in front of my computer doing something, making things. I was teaching myself from the web and some books," says Naoko. One of those books, Naoko says, was actually authored by her now-colleague, Jeffrey Zeldman, a Principal Designer at Automattic.

And even when she had a job in Detroit, working for an auto company where her Japanese and English skills were in high demand, she'd come home from work, sit down at the computer, and keep exploring. Some of that at-home exploration was as a volunteer contributor to the translation and documentation project for WordPress in Japanese. Those efforts led to more relationships with people at Automattic—including Matt, who is now the company's CEO.

"At the time he was just going to places; if you asked, he'd say, 'Okay, if I have time, I'll go,'" says Naoko. So she invited him to Tokyo, and signed up to be his personal translator and guide when he said yes.

Naoko remembers the trip going awry—getting lost, losing her phone, and a few too many drinks—but when Matt got back home, he offered Naoko a job.

"My guess is that he realized that if he didn't speak that language, it was hard to get around and he needed someone to help. So it's like oh, the company will need someone, too, for the tool to be explained," says Naoko.

"I never thought I'd have a chance to work for Automattic," says Naoko, thinking back. "It was a dream company, because I loved WordPress so much!" (Besides making WordPress.com, Automattic also contributes significantly to the Open Source WordPress project.)

Embracing Multiculturalism: 6 Tips

As a Globalizer at Automattic, Naoko works with the incredibly diverse Automattic team, with its 1,600+ people spanning 88 countries and 108 languages, as well as with her own bench of volunteers, who speak at least 200 different languages.

"Day-to-day, I talk to people from 10 different countries," she says. "Though it's all done in English!"

Working with such a globally diversified team means understanding that everyone is at a different point in terms of communication efficacy. "We understand that speaking a second language is not always easy, so we use leeway for understanding someone, or empathizing if someone uses a word or phrase incorrectly, if the intention is good," she explains.

Here are 6 key things Naoko has found especially helpful when it comes to communicating across cultures:

  1. Lean into written and asynchronous communication. Automattic was a remote, fully distributed company long before the pandemic, and Naoko credits their non-live methods of communication with creating a comfortable environment for non-native speakers to thrive. "You have time to think about your mode, whether it's writing an email or communicating through Slack," she says.
  2. Use graphics. As someone with a background in graphic communication, Naoko is a big fan of using images, flowcharts, and other visuals to communicate information. "People don't read! If it's an image, they get the idea," she says. "That's especially true for polyglots, so I try to add images all the time."
  3. Think about your content's structure. Even beyond adding a graphic element, Naoko says she is regularly inspired to communicate better by applying her HTML background to her updates. "You know, writing HTML, you have the heading, body text, bullet points, images, and that's how I construct content," she says. "It's clear, precise writing."
  4. Look for tools that can help. It's way easier to communicate with a global team now than it was in the early 2000s, says Naoko, thanks to how significantly machine translation has evolved. "We have contributors who don't speak any English, who use Google Translate to communicate perfectly fine," she adds.
  5. Be patient. "Whatever the native language, people always misunderstand each other. Don't expect that they understand you, whoever they are, whether they are fluent or not. Always keep in mind that you have to explain yourself or your idea won't be communicated," says Naoko.
  6. Just try. Whether you're the manager of a team that hails from all over, or someone who's starting a new job in their second language, Naoko implores you to just put yourself out there and start to communicate, as that's the only way to learn. "Even though I wasn't fully comfortable, I always took opportunities, even when I wasn't ready. Over time, it gets better. If you keep thinking you're not ready, then you never will be," advises Naoko.

Looking Forward

Naoko isn't planning on leaving Japan anytime soon.

"I have kids, and Japan is one of the safest countries; I like living in Japan," she says.

But she still has a deep interest in other countries and cultures.

Working at Automattic gives her a global life, even when she's based in one place.

"I feel like I get the best of both worlds," she says. "Being in my country, comfortable living my life, yet I can work with these people from all over the world, meeting people from different countries."

Those connections are extra-special because Naoko and her coworkers share their own kind of citizenship, she explains. "Whenever I meet someone new from Automattic, I somehow feel they are very similar. Lori, our HR person, says that it's like we get the most unique people from each class and put them in one room, and that room is Automattic."

"I never felt like I completely fit in, in Japanese culture or U.S. culture, but Automattic feels like good chaos."

If the Automattic team sounds right for you, too, check out their open (and entirely remote!) roles

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