When is good English a disadvantage?
When you’re in business.
Well, it’s not so simple obviously, but I was intrigued by an article on the BBC Capital website entitled Why Foreigners Hate English Speakers (well, the title is actually Native English Speakers are the World’s Worst Communicators, but the former was the carrot to entice me to click on it). Now I knew that the BBC were indulging in a little clickbaiting with such a provocative title, and that the actual content would be a lot milder than it promised, but still, I was curious.
And it was an interesting read. The basic gist of it is that non-native English speakers often have trouble understanding native speakers in business situations. This isn’t too surprising, as a native speaker is going to speak more quickly than a non-native speaker, and use more idioms (which may even be quite localised) which can be hard to understand. This can be particularly problematic for English speakers, as we often don’t have as much experience of learning a language to a reasonable level compared to those who’ve had to learn English, so we don’t usually realise how to adapt our speech to make ourselves fully understood. I see this cause problems all the time, but usually nothing serious. In business, however, it’s a different matter.
The article begins by recounting a situation in which a non-native speaker was unsure of the meaning of an ambiguous word in a message from a native-speaker colleague. They checked it in the dictionary, found a contrary meaning from what their colleague intended, and acting on that, lost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now that’s obviously an extreme example of what can happen, but there seem to be many cases where business doesn’t proceed as well as it could because of the way native speakers speak. On calls where a native speaker is setting out plans to non-native speaking colleagues, often their full meaning will be misunderstood, and their colleagues will go ahead with a plan based on what they think they meant, or just create a new plan entirely. In meetings, native speakers will often jump in to fill an “awkward silence,” when in fact their colleague is just taking a moment to formulate what they want to say. Ideas therefore don’t get shared which might be useful.
What’s to be done about this then? We English speakers could start learning other languages (properly). People always like to drone on about how we should teach our children Chinese in order to make sure we can trade with China effectively. But then the Chinese are already doing a pretty good job of learning English, and English is already well established as the language of international business, so that’s out the door.
I think the biggest factor we need to consider is the fact that there are many more non-native speakers of English in the world than native speakers. Estimates vary, but there are between 330 and 360 million native speakers, and between 470 million and 1 billion non-native speakers. Based on numbers alone, I think the onus is on us native speakers to adapt our way of speaking to make things easier in the long run. It makes better business sense overall as well: if everyone understands, then there are fewer mistakes made and more ideas shared. Miscommunication is even possible between native speakers who speak different forms of English, so they’d also benefit in that regard.
How to go about adapting our speech though? The obvious answer is simply to speak more slowly and clearly, and with simpler language, and to be more patient while waiting for non-native speakers to speak. But I don’t think that’s enough. A native speaker’s conception of simple language is often still more complex than a non-native speaker’s. Even when people make an effort to speak more slowly, there are so many idioms that we take for granted as part of our daily speech that can be completely incomprehensible for non-native speakers. What we really need is to be able to see things from a learner’s perspective, to see how the apparently simple aspects of language we take for granted can be confusing when encountered for the first time, and have to be constructed from smaller parts we’re not normally aware of.
One way to achieve this would be to have key employees take lessons in another language, to understand what it’s like to learn English. They don’t have to learn the other language to the level where they could use it well: just enough so that they can understand what it’s like to have to think about what you want to say, and have to listen carefully to someone to put together what they mean. The lessons could even be English lessons. Just a few (with additional input to make the employees aware of specific ways in which we use English naturally can cause difficulty for non-native speakers) should be enough.
It might feel strange for people to consciously use simpler English. Even for non-native speakers. We always tell them that fluency and use of idiomatic language are goals they should strive for. That’s what we tell them good, natural English is all about. But in business, clarity is key, and knowing plenty of informal idioms won’t be of much benefit. Still, at least there might be one benefit to a Trump presidency: his vocabulary is so amazingly limited that people would have no problems understanding him: Come trade with us, we’ve got the best deals, really big deals, better than those other countries…