6 myths about English at work

“There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” Susan Cain.

Learning a language is an illusive skill. It can create great joy in being able to communicate across boundaries, but equally, sometimes, great fear – fear of making mistakes and not being able to express yourself fully and, therefore, the feeling of having your personality suppressed.

Across many professional industries, I often work with staff members who have been identified as having weak English language skills, and it is often suggested that brushing up on grammar and building vocabulary banks will increase skills to a level more adequate for the job.

At the same time, I have learnt that there is a broad range of understanding around what it is to speak another language in the workplace, as well as there being little understanding of the differences between communication and language skills.

From the outside, it is easier for managers and recruiters to identify weaknesses of fluency and vocabulary in their non-native speaking colleagues and candidates. However, most staff members undergoing coaching themselves feel the need to build capacity around

  • developing rapport,
  • communicating effectively in meetings,
  • giving effective presentations,
  • delivering persuasive messages in both indirect and more direct ways, or
  • smoothly interacting with colleagues and clients by effectively using small talk.

That is why it is imperative to infuse cross-cultural and general communication components into language proficiency coaching, at the corporate level. While staff members can have ranging capabilities in language and cultural intelligence, the two are not always linked. There are many other myths around language that can provide serious challenges for senior management and human resources staff. Here are a few of those myths.

  1. Language proficiency is job proficiency. It is true that a lack of language proficiency can lead to many challenges in productivity, collaboration, customer and even staff retention. However, promoting or hiring the candidate due to English language fluency alone could lead to lost opportunities by not engaging with other highly gifted and adaptable candidates who are yet to fully master their corporate confidence in English.
  1. Fluent English equals a good communicator. Just because someone speaks fluently, does not mean they have the best ideas, strongest leadership capabilities or even best communication skills. Skills in persuasive language, meeting behaviour and presentation delivery can be nurtured with some linguistic refinement and strategic tools.
  1. We are better off laterally hiring middle management staff with native English communication skills. Candidates coming from other companies have learnt another company’s culture and now have to become a good fit in the new culture. Younger, graduate candidates who are nurtured linguistically and otherwise, learn the company culture from the beginning and feel valued when the company invests in their professional skills development and are, therefore, more likely to show loyalty to the company. This will also reduce costs around high rates of recruitment turnover.
  1. Native English speaking staff members are more confident. When considering who is speaking up in meetings or even who is attending meetings, it might be easier to single out the native English speakers. In speaking with non-native staff members, it has been a recurring comment that it is one thing to operate in a meeting where everyone is a non-native speaker and a complete other thing where there is a dominant group of native speakers. Research shows that even the most proficient non-native speakers feel intimidated in native-speaker environments. This suggests that there is a need for all staff to consider a unified approach to language in multinational teams and how communication is working.
  1. Language has nothing to do with culture. A fluent language user is not the same thing as being culturally proficient. However, language weakness is often more a case of finding the right linguistic cues to meet the new culture or hit the right mark when dealing with multinational teams.
  1. Non-native speakers need to improve their skills. This, of course, is true in many cases, but it is not the only element that has to change in multinational teams. Native speakers have a role to play when there is a range of fluency levels. They cannot continue to talk as if talking with people of their same culture and language and managers need to manage this carefully. Native speakers might need to slow down slightly, use less colloquial terminology and be proactive in assist co-workers to participate in the conversation.

Good language skills are not just about fluency and a good bank of vocabulary. It’s also about carefully placed questions, listening, ensuring understanding has been achieved and, most importantly, the reading of subtle cues and reactions in sensitive situations. The answer is refining a combination of cross-cultural capability and linguistic proficiency.

The good news is that all these things can be learnt and it is better to invest in the people who have the raw skills, business potential and technical competencies to get the job done – rather than responding to the most fluent, confident and loudest speaker.

Do not let language proficiency cloud management and recruitment decision and belief systems around who is the strongest candidate for the job.

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