For science and technology workers, bilingual skills are in big demand. Industry magazine Chemical and Engineering News quotes both employers and students delivering the same message: bilingual skills open doors. From chemical engineers to data scientists to software engineers, people who add English to the mix are able to leverage technical skills in a global way. IT support workers face the same requirement — businesses want to hire bilingual workers.

The Challenge for Monolingual Japanese Staff

One recruiting agency notes the difficulty, even in Tokyo, of hiring Japanese staff proficient in the English language for companies that do business internationally. It’s not just a question of having a “book knowledge” of English, it’s the ability to communicate clearly and correctly in English that makes the difference.

While some IT support jobs are with smaller companies where a monolingual worker is sufficient, Japanese-only workers still find themselves limited by the inability to participate in the global IT community, where English is the dominant language. IT support professionals find that a second language allows them to support visiting workers from a variety of countries, such as French-speaking workers from Africa and Europe who invariably adopt English as the lingua franca.

Software as a Service (SaaS) provider Zendesk writes about global IT support and the challenges language introduces. Zendesk also notes that being able to find common ground makes a big difference in the goodwill sustained by support personnel.

IT support workers in multinational companies need a common language just to talk to each other around the globe. Videoconference-based training allows workers to share knowledge with each other on a regular basis, helping to promote company policies and procedures and letting everyone get up to speed on new technologies. Bilingual workers can join in more quickly and effectively.

For companies where company-wide or industry-wide communication is required, bilingual IT support personnel can bridge the gap. They can also act as company ambassadors at conferences and trade shows and in training programs. Anywhere that a diverse group of people come together to pursue technical goals, bilingual IT support personnel provide the bridge that ensures everyone’s technology needs are met.

The Challenge for Monolingual English Speakers

Looking at the issue from the other side, we can see how monolingual English speakers may not be a good IT support fit at domestic Japanese companies. English is the world’s common language in the world of technology, but Japan still lags behind regional rivals Korea and China when it comes to English language proficiency. The majority of support-seeking end users will require guidance in Japanese.

In many cases, Japanese language fluency alone is not enough. IT workers must have some understanding of Japanese business etiquette in order to make a better impression when on service calls to Japanese-speaking clients. They need to appreciate the importance of context and formality when dealing with Japanese customers. Otherwise, they may offend their end-users without even realising it. An English speaker with an intimate knowledge of both Japanese language and culture will be more aware of communication cues and potential pitfalls.

Bilingual IT support personnel make it easier for non-Japanese companies to provide support to the Japanese market. Basic tier 1 support can be handled by Japanese-only representatives in a local team, and perhaps even tier 2 issues can be scripted and handled locally, but it is likely that advanced tier 3 issues are going to involve someone with more intimate knowledge of the product who does not speak enough Japanese to discuss the situation well with the customer.

Truly Bilingual IT Support Talent in Japan – An Increasingly Valuable Asset

As the Japan Times notes, there is a dire shortage of IT-related engineers in the Land of the Rising Sun. Companies such as Mercari and Line have dropped their Japanese language requirement for new hires, as they look abroad to find the profile of candidate they need. However, this is a luxury that the majority of businesses simply cannot afford. The average SME, for example, does not have the network or resources to hunt for staff abroad. Further, they may not have the budget to increase headcount by hiring interpreters – as Mercari does – to act as a go-between staff, management and users. In this sense, businesses operating in Japan essentially get a two for the price of one deal by hiring a reliable bilingual speaker from the get-go. Bilingual staff also tend to be exposed to a broader source of information on bug fix and troubleshooting than their monolingual counterparts. With this broader skill set comes a versatility which should not be overlooked.

Reality at Present

The inability of an IT support professional to speak the user’s language can lead to crossed wires and unnecessary frustration for both parties. In order to provide the very best IT support, it is in many cases a basic requirement for IT professionals in Japan to be a master of both Japanese and English.

In a globalised Japan, technical and people skills are no longer enough in IT. With leading companies such as Rakuten setting an example by pushing English as the language of day to day business in their Japan offices, there may come a time when bilingual is the new norm in Japan. Until then, bilingual IT support staff, whether they be Japanese nationals or foreigners, have linguistic skills that will continue to set them apart.