Speak global English please!

You might be surprised to know that the worst communicators in the world, according to the BBC, are native English-speakers. Efficient communication amongst employees is absolutely crucial for global companies, yet it is not happening. Why is this and what can you do if you are a native-English speaker who didn't even know you weren't a good communicator?

Consider the fact that only 25% of British people, (and about the same percentage of Americans) can hold a conversation in a foreign language. That includes, by the way, all the British or Americans who have grown up in bilingual households. So, the majority of people in the UK or in the USA have no idea what it's like to be in a situation where they are using a foreign language for work. If you can't imagine what it's like, it's very difficult to understand how to close the communication gap.

Here lies the main problem: Most native-English speakers don't actually know the communication gap with their non-native colleagues exists. These colleagues seem to speak good English, they can work in English and they take English lessons. And that means they understand everything, right?

Wrong. Learning a language is hard work, and takes a long time. There is no magic potion to suddenly become bilingual. Just because someone communicates quite well doesn't mean they can understand slang, or a whole day of complicated training, an evening in the pub or a conference call. (Just think how painful conference calls can be in your own language and then imagine doing one in Finnish or Korean!)

The best way to be a better communicator? Put yourself in a situation where you are immersed in another language. Unfortunately, life usually gets in the way of this one, meaning for most people it's the least plausible solution. You could also attend a language-grading training. If this is not available, here is the next best thing - my top tips on being a better communicator, aka how to speak global English:

  • Vocabulary awareness: Avoid phrasal verbs. (For all you non-grammarians out there, these are all the verbs made up of a verb and one or more prepositions, like get over, get through, get by, get off, get into, get along with etc.) To a native speaker, you probably think the word “get” is a pretty easy word to understand. But combined with a preposition creates a new verb with an opaque meaning, which is extremely difficult for non-Anglophones to understand. Saying, “she doesn't have a good relationship with him” is easier to understand than, “she doesn't get along with him.”

  • No speeding. Don't speak too fast and be consistent in your speed: don't speed up again after 2 minutes.

  • Breathe. Something that's very difficult for non-native speakers is understanding where one word ends and another begins. Take your time, pause between phrases and don't speak in one long joined-together jumble.

  • No slang: Avoid idioms and slang. If you say, “John's feeling a bit under the weather today” your colleagues will be wondering if John is caught in a rainstorm or has sunburn.

  • Patience is a virtue: Be patient, and repeat as many times as necessary – the first time repeat exactly what you said and then rephrase from the second time. People are often embarrassed to ask for repetition more than twice. Repeat without being asked if you feel they haven't got it.

  • Your accent is beautiful, but might not be easy: Be aware that listeners might not be familiar with your accent. No one expects you to change your accent but just speak a little slower and enunciate more clearly.

  • Say what you mean. Now is not the time for sarcasm or understatement.

  • Summarise without being asked. Or depending on the context, ask the other person to summarise back to you, to make sure nothing has been missed.

If you are a native English-speaker, you have an automatic advantage over your non-anglophone colleagues. But if you don't know how to communicate with the growing number of people around the world who work in English, you'll be the one ending up at a disadvantage. Better start practising your global English now!

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