My parents grew up in Devon, UK and never travelled abroad until they were in their 50’s. My mum says that until that time she’d only ever spoken with one ‘foreigner’, our Spanish neighbour Maria-Lourdes …. everyone called her Mary.
But throughout my lifetime the world has become an unrecognizably smaller place thanks to cheaper travel, computers, the internet and social media.
And the currency of this new world? The English language.
400 million people speak English as their first language and more than 1 billion people speak English as a foreign / second language.
More and more multinationals have adopted English as their official working language – Microsoft, Renault, Rakuten, Airbus and Nissan to name a few. As a native English speaker I can go more or less anywhere in the world and be confident that I can communicate in my mother tongue.
So what’s the problem?
According to research by Mayflower College, UK, 88% of non-native English speakers (NNS’s) say that communicating in English with native speakers (NS’s) is more difficult than communicating with other NNS’s.
How so? Why are the Americans / British / Australians so bad at filtering and simplifying their English when communicating with non-native speakers?
A misplaced sense of imperialistic superiority? …. “I’m a native English speaker, therefore the problem cannot be mine, it must be yours.” Surely not.
And our poor track record of learning foreign languages means that we find it hard to empathize with the challenges faced by those who’ve had to learn English as their second language. Here’s a clue … it’s similar to that feeling when everyone laughs and you don’t know why or when you don’t really know what’s going on but you nod anyway, desperately hoping no one asks for your input … just a lot more stressful.
Why is this so important now?
The world is changing.
Brexit, the rise of populism and the return of protectionist policies (such as America First) mean that many commercial and personal relationships need to be reset. Agreements need to be renegotiated, contracts need to be redrafted, relationships need to be rebuilt. It’s more important than ever for organizations to communicate clearly with their international colleagues and customers. If not now then when?
How would you feel?
Imagine this scenario. One day it’s announced that the official working language of your organization is changing to … let’s say, Japanese. You don’t speak a word of Japanese but after much agonizing you decide to stay with your company and sign up for lessons. After 12 months of hard slog you become reasonably proficient and fly off to Tokyo for your first meeting. And in that meeting the Japanese native-speakers make no allowances for the fact that Japanese is not your first language … they speak at their normal speed, they use idiomatic language, complicated grammar, abbreviations and jargon.
How would you feel? Angry? Humiliated? Frustrated? Overlooked?
Well, that’s how NNS’s can feel if we don’t adjust our English.
The failure to manage the use of English in our organizations, especially the use of English by NS’s, “has the potential to make [NNS] employees feel isolated and undermined and render them ineffective in workplace communication.” (Sarbari Bordia, Australian National University).
We risk silencing our international colleagues and customers, a phenomenon referred to as ‘linguistic ostracism’.
If we’re serious about making better decisions and protecting our international relationships then we must recognise that our opinions do not somehow matter more just because we can express them in ‘perfect’ English.
And if I expect ‘Mary’ to speak my native tongue (because I don’t speak Spanish) the least I can do is to learn how to communicate in a way that she’s likely to understand.