The English Language Advantage

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"You Americans, you have no idea how easy you have it! You get to use your native language at work every day."

This comment took me by surprise, coming from a Scandinavian co-worker with, to my ears, excellent English-language skills. I tried to argue, and he argued right back, explaining that while he had studied English in school and used it at work for many years, he still struggled sometimes to keep up in conversations with Americans, especially in meetings when we were all talking quickly and interrupting each other, or speaking in long, run-on sentences like this one.

Since that day I've come to appreciate the truth in his words. I've heard the same complaint from so many other colleagues and students, and observed the very real toll that speaking and trying to understand English all day can take. Frustration, fatigue and embarrassment are common experiences, sometimes resulting in costly business mistakes or damaged work relationships.

When given the opportunity, I try to help other native English speakers understand the advantage their language skills give them in the workplace. I encourage them to consider ways that they could adjust their approaches and expectations when communicating with colleagues who have English as their second, third or even fourth language.

Over the years a simple list of practical tips has emerged from our conversations:

  • Be aware of potential communication gaps. Pay attention!
  • Slow down. Speak at a slower pace and pause more often to listen.
  • Use common English words. Simplify your explanations.
  • Be patient, especially when people repeat themselves or ask you to repeat.
  • Invite and encourage people to speak up. Pause and wait for a reply. Don't interrupt!
  • Be aware of your use of slang, acronyms and pop culture references. Don't expect that they will be easily understood. Use them sparingly or be willing to explain/teach what they mean.
  • Provide meeting agendas and expectations in advance. Follow the agenda, create opportunities for each person to take turns speaking and summarize key points in writing.
  • Follow up one-on-one after group meetings to  check for understanding, answer questions and offer further explanations.

These are probably good suggestions for anyone with a desire to communicate effectively at work. They're especially relevant for people with the advantage, often unacknowledged or even outside of our awareness, of being able to use our native language all day long.