You work for a company with global interests. You’re meeting with your counterparts from Asia, Spain and France. But you speak only English. Why learn any other other language? After all, everyone has to speak English. That’s the international language of business.
You enter a boardroom filled with business people from Asia, Spain and France. Though English isn’t their first language, everyone has been communicating very successfully. There’s an atmosphere of professional kinship and cooperative interaction.
You sit down and listen to a discussion about a business deal that, though risky, could be very profitable. “Well okay,” you say to the group. “But look, if we’re gonna go there, we gotta cover our bases.” And then you continue talking, talking, talking, talking.
“Huh?” they’re thinking. “Where are we gonna go? And ‘cover’? What ‘cover’? Cover what?” As they stare at you, nodding out of courtesy, saying nothing, you continue your monologue, blissfully unaware that you’ve just destroyed that camaraderie and mutual trust. The meeting does not end well. Why?
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in “their stares,” but in yourself.
You might have tried to say a few words in their languages. But more importantly, you might simply have avoided colloquial expressions altogether, with more concrete language like “Well, if we decide to proceed with this plan, we’d better make sure to prepare thoroughly in order to succeed.” And then stopped to listen.
Why are you using expressions about travel — “going there” — and baseball — “cover our bases” – in a business meeting? Why are you assuming speakers of EAL, who don’t live in your country, should understand? The fact is, they were doing just fine until you arrived.
In 2016, Spencer Hazel, now Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Newcastle University, wrote in the online journal The Conversation, “there is mounting evidence in international business, native English speakers are failing to integrate … International colleagues resent the lack of effort made on the part of the monoglot English speaker.”
Among anglophones, there is a sense that they are the centre of reference.
In the same year as The Conversation article appeared, another article appeared in the online journal, BBC Capital. Michael Blattner, of the Zurich Insurance Company, whose native language is Swiss German, commented, “At meetings … typically, native English speakers dominate about 90% of the time. But the other people have been invited for a reason.”
And Chia Suan Chong, a UK-based communications skills and intercultural trainer, wrote “… non-native speakers, it turns out, speak more purposefully and carefully, typical of someone speaking a second or third language. Anglophones, on the other hand, often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture.”
Professor Jennifer Jenkins, Chair of Global Englishes at the University of Southampton in the UK, also wrote “Non-native speakers generally use more limited vocabulary and simpler expressions, without flowery language or slang. Because of that, they understand one another at face value.”
The unilingual anglophone has no idea what international communication is all about.
Think about it.
To know a language fully, we must be fully immersed in it. We must live it. Even in the same county, one language spoken in a different region can have a different accent, different words and different expressions. It might seem faster or slower. As you move into the deep South of the United States, there’s a distinct Southern “drawl” that can seem very slow indeed.
I remember sitting in Heathrow airport near London. As I sat, quietly reading a book waiting for my boarding announcement, I overheard three people conversing at breakneck speed in some foreign language. Or so I assumed, until I realized they were all just speaking English with a Scottish accent.
There are common words and expressions in Britain that we don’t use in North America, from something as simple as “boot,” for the “trunk” of a car to something as elaborate as “throw a spanner in the works” meaning “to disrupt plans.” In North America, we have an equally confusing expression “throw a monkey wrench into the works.” Why would a speaker of EAL know either one? How many expressions and slang words can anyone possibly remember anyway? In June of this year 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary reported that it had added 600 new words, phrases, and meanings alone. Hello? …
And English is hardly special. Every major language has its own idiosyncrasies and regional accents.
The French spoken in New Brunswick can be quite different from the French spoken in Quebec City, both in Canada, which can be quite different from the French spoken in Paris, France, which can be different from the French spoken in Brussels, Belgium.
In working with speakers of English as an Additional Language, I (and others, of course) try to take language skills up a notch in terms of pronunciation, use of grammar or vocabulary. Absorbing the local slang and expressions makes living in that environment richer. Besides which, in a local context where English is the official language, sometimes even minor enhancements can lend not just intelligibility but some credibility and authority in the workplace.
But with the “hyper dominance” of English throughout the world, anglophones –especially those who speak no other language but English — can be arrogant and insular.
In an international context, we’re interacting with people from all around the world who have learned English from a variety of teachers, both native and non-native English speakers from different parts of the world. We must be mindful and sensitive! We must make no assumptions.
To create partnerships and trust, communication skills are important. International English must be simple, direct and concrete. We must slow down our speech, choose language that’s universal and accessible. We must also stop and take the time to listen with attention.
That’s not “dumbing down.” It’s stripping off our egos and stepping into the shoes of colleagues, customers and clients around the globe.
If you’re an Anglophone who has travelled around the world for business, I would love to hear from you. If you’re a business person who’s a speaker of EAL who has experienced the challenges I’ve been writing about, I’d also love to hear from you. And I do apologize for any in-jokes or vernacular I’ve used in this blog.
Don’t forget to check out this week’s One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel.