Tips for Native English Speakers in a Borderless World

| By Terence Brake

Research shows native English speakers are to blame for bad communication in a borderless business environment

The fact that English has become something of a global language is no guarantee that native speakers will be able to communicate easily.  In fact, native speakers are often the least able to make themselves understood.

If you are a native English speaker, think of your use of English.  You are likely to have a large English vocabulary with many words unknown to those who speak English as a second or third language; you are also likely to use local sayings (or slang) that makes no sense to others, and be unaware of the degree to which you speak English with an accent (an accent unfamiliar to those who learn English in school or through self-instruction materials).  You are also more likely to speak English at a more rapid pace than non-native speakers.

Those who speak English as a first-language are often monolingual and unaware of the problems they cause in meetings in which the ‘official’ language is their own.  In multicultural meetings, it is sometimes the case that non-native speakers are from group-orientated or indirect communication cultures in which ‘saving face’ is very important; asking questions or saying you don’t understand may cause you embarrassment and therefore a loss of face.  The outcome is lost information and misunderstandings which can result in heavy financial losses. 

Those who learn English as a second or third language often use it with greater care and precision; they know that they need to adapt and be more purposeful in speaking.  Using a more restricted vocabulary and more straightforward expressions – along with speaking at a slower pace – can benefit the non-native speakers when they are communicating with each other.  They can decode each other’s communications with greater accuracy (by taking expressions at ‘face value’), and achieve a higher level of shared understanding without native buried assumptions and meanings.

Native english speakers

Some Tips for Native English Speakers When Communicating Across Cultures:

  • Listen for English fluency of others and adapt without assuming relative fluency guarantees shared understanding.  Just remember, native English speakers can have trouble communicating with each other
  • Speak slowly, clearly and directly
  • Rehearse what you are going to say, if you can.  Put yourself in the position of the listener, and identify possible communication obstacles, including words used, intonation, and speed
  • Avoid ‘false friends’ – words that sound the same in two or more languages, but have different meanings, e.g. ‘embarrassed’ in English, and ‘embarazada’ in Spanish, which means pregnant
  • Keep your language simple.  Avoid jargon, acronyms, slang, and complicated words
  • Clarify your meanings, often.  Avoid vague, abstract language, e.g. what does ‘quality’ mean or ‘as soon as possible’?
  • Keep your sentences short – one thought per sentence
  • Use language consistently; don’t change word meanings as you speak, e.g. using ‘literally’ to mean ‘exactly’, and then shifting the usage of ‘literally’ to emphasize that you have a strong feeling about something
  • Never underestimate the intelligence of someone who is not fluent in English.  That can be a sure way to lose the global talent your company needs

The British Council estimates that by 2020, 2 billion people will be studying English, but that doesn’t mean native English speakers can relax.  In fact, native - English speakers need to make a greater effort to be understood.  You might want to look up Globish – an English tool aimed at helping develop a common ground for non-native English speakers in the context of international business.  It consists of a vocabulary of 1,500 English words, and a subset of standard English.

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