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.

Are you feeling high or low?

“You don’t have to tell me again, I’m not a child”

“If you don’t understand, you’re…well…hmmm.“

A high-context communicator is someone who uses words in a way that relies heavily on the context in which they are used or, in other words, someone who relies on the things that are not said or rather implied, to communicate the real meaning of what is meant. This often happens in environments that are quite homogenous and often result in languages being formed around fewer words to express meaning because one word can mean a number of things in different contexts.

“Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you have told them”

“If you don’t understand, it is my fault.”

Low-context communicators, on the contrary, do not rely heavily on context and are therefore more explicit in their communication. These types of communicators can come from more newly developed countries that have been built on immigration where many cultures live side-by-side and require more explicit communication to ensure that everyone is on the same page (even as I’m writing this, I feel for that very reason, it’s important to explain that ‘on the same page’ means ‘everyone understanding each other’).

Low-context; rich vocabulary

English is arguably one of the richest languages, namely due to its Germanic origins and historical influences from Viking and Norman domination and more specifically Norman French and thus Latin. The link that I hadn’t made until recently was that rich languages like this are possibly an indication of low-context cultures because so many more words are needed to express explicit meaning rather than the alternative of intuiting meaning by what was not said or ‘reading the air’.

“Sinister buttocks”

Upon reading this article, I suddenly realised our rich language might seem to be laden with choice – many words meaning the same thing and therefore synonyms being readily available – meaning a number of different words can be inserted into a phrase to make it more sophisticated or, more sinisterly, to dodge the plagiarism accusation. This article has some hilarious examples of some awkwardly chosen synonyms and has led, aptly, to yet another addition to the English dictionary – ‘rogeting’…

Speak with Sophistication

When I meet student for the first time it is often at an initial hour-long interview in order to establish a thorough needs analysis. The more I do, the more I notice that corporate English students want to speak with more sophistication often when discussing complex ideas.

It is clear that they are able to speak with confidence in casual environments like these initial meetings but when it comes to communicating complex accounting structures and concepts to non-specialised staff they tell me that it becomes difficult. Equally, when in a social situation it is easy to talk about the weekend but when it comes to discussing the recent budget or Thailand’s recent military takeover, adequate vocabulary tends to be more challenging.

In a recent professional development, a presenter told a story of a man who learnt new languages by reading the newspaper. That might sound a bit optimistic but if I break it down a bit it becomes a handy exercise for building more sophisticated vocabulary.

Rather than just reading for meaning, he would highlight all the collocations and then transpose them onto a page. If we focus on Thailand’s recent shift to martial law he might have ended up with a list of words like this.

  • military takeover
  • former prime minister
  • prominent politicians
  • took over
  • temporary replacement
  • prominent figures
  • military facility
  • military spokesman
  • senior military official
  • top political posts
  • seized control
  • declared martial law
  • restore order
  • push through reforms
  • political turmoil

Following that he would look at the list and try to tell a story out-loud (even to himself in a private place) by using these words to solidify them in his brain.

By doing this relatively short activity, he not only built his knowledge of current affairs and therefore his ability to build rapport with other, but he also built his transferrable knowledge of collocations and his overall vocabulary – and a sophisticated one at that.

Try and make a story with the above words and then read the article they were taken from:

 

Vocab Tips

New vocabulary acquisition is a pain and chore.

You wish there was that magic button you could press to allow your English to become instantaneously sophisticated. You wish people would hang off your every word as you fascinate them with fancy linguistics.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started…

  1. Listen for the words that you understand but don’t necessarily actively use.
  2. Gain new vocabulary by reading articles from The Monthly magazine – or any other good writing (hard to find).
  3. Set aside 10 minutes of every day to revise your new vocab list.
  4. Search for spelling mistakes in the MX paper on the way home.
  5. Come to the next E4B Conversation Meet-Up on 25 November at York Lane.