Mind the gap. Speaking English at work how much are you missing out on?

February 17, 2020
Ellie Louis

Global business speaks English, but are non-native speakers missing out?

An eye-watering 60% of people come out of work meetings not knowing what they need to do next! And that is assuming that they are native speakers. What would that number look like for a global company with a global workforce operating in English, many as a non-native language?

“If my team has an operational level of English, is there really an impact? Isn’t it all down to good or bad meeting management rather than language skills?”

Potentially yes, but what about when cultural differences and expectations are added into the mix too? How far does this crank up the risk for misunderstanding and lack of clarity on do nexts?

Can two experts take part in the same conversation and each come away with a completely different interpretation of what has just taken place?

Of course, we know they can. We know from personal experience that this happens all the time. That is why large organisations, such as Tesco, send their staff on courses to teach them how to check their understanding, seek clarification and follow up with a written confirmation in an email.

This might seem like overkill for a small to medium business with a few hundred staff, compared to the hundreds of thousands employed by Tesco. But is it? If two people, let’s say, two native speakers can be so prone to misunderstanding, what is the potential for hundreds of people, many of them non-native speakers to get the wrong end of the stick? And what is the potential impact on the bottom line?

The fastest growing, most innovative companies in the world benefit from global talent

This is the beauty of having English as a common language, we can all use. But could non-native English speakers be missing out on understanding key information, implied meaning and cultural cues? Whilst native speakers assume they have been understood or understand what their global colleagues are communicating?

Harvard recently did some research into the experiences of non-native speakers using English in the workplace and found some worrying trends.

Perception of non-native language skills can hold back performance

According to The Harvard Review, employees working in one-language businesses often worry that the best jobs will be offered only to those with strong English skills, regardless of content expertise.

Research into one French company found that 56% of medium-fluency English speakers and 42% of low-fluency speakers reported worrying about job advancement because of their relatively limited English skills. It’s worth noting that employees often underestimate their own abilities or overestimate the challenge of developing sufficient fluency.

This lack of confidence in language skills can impact a person’s behaviour in 3 important ways:

1. Holding back on contribution

The same research found that when someone felt that their relatively poor language skills could become conspicuous and have career-related consequences, they simply stopped contributing to common discourse. “They’re afraid to make mistakes,” an HR manager at the firm explains, “so they will just not speak at all.”

2. Reverting to native language for expediency

It’s not unusual to hear non-native speakers revert to their own language at the expense of their English-speaking colleagues, often because it’s faster and easier to conduct meetings in their mother tongue

3. Avoiding the use of written English

Written skills for non-native speakers are often weaker than their verbal skills. So, avoiding writing things down altogether does happen, further amplifying the potential for lack of clarification and checking of understanding of any spoken communication.

The English Classroom offers business communication courses for companies employing a global workforce.

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