How to communicate in English for Americans and Brits

In a recent one-to-one lesson, a student (we’ll call him Klaus) confided in me that conference calls are the thing he hates most about his job.  But only certain conference calls.  “I’m fine if I’m on a call with colleagues from Spain or the Netherlands.  But when I hear that it’s the London office on the phone, I panic.”

Why?  Because he can’t understand them.

They speak too fast.  They tell jokes no one understands.  They use idioms.  They mumble.

Now, Klaus isn’t a beginner.  Grammatically, he is a high B1 (intermediate).  Conversationally, he’s a B2 (upper intermediate).  That means he can carry on a conversation about most things.  His English isn’t perfect, but it works.  And he isn’t the first student to tell me a story like this.

The realities of global English and fluency

The fact is, non-native English speakers have fewer problems communicating with other non-native speakers than with Americans or Brits. Because of the limited number of textbooks, non-native speakers often learn the same basic grammar in the same sequence, the same functional language, and the same type of vocabulary.  They also know that the people they are speaking with have the same issues with the language they have.  By contrast, native speakers often assume that if someone speaks English, they must speak it fluently.  Newsflash: they don’t.  Most are like Klaus.  They have an imperfect grasp of the language, but they know enough so that it works for them most of the time.

In Klaus’s situation, this is simply an annoyance.  However, it can potentially cost a company money. Linguist Lilian Grozdanova cites the case of a French company that won a contract to provide flight simulators to South Korea over a British company – even though the British company offered the product at a lower cost. The reason?  “The buyers found it easier to understand the English spoken by the French company than the English spoken by the British company.”[1]

The reality is that while many native-English speakers learn languages in high school or at university, they rarely use them.  As speakers of the dominant language, it is often hard for them to understand the difficulty non-native speakers face in a business setting.  And when presented with this communication gap, most people assume the answer is more English lessons for non-native speakers.

I think this is a mistake.

I believe part of the answer lies in teaching native English speakers how to speak a new language.  Some refer to it as Offshore English.  Others are calling it Trade English or International English.  Whatever you decide to call it, English speakers need to learn the basics in order to get the job done.  Here are some tips:

  1. Speak slower. Don’t slow down to the point of insulting your listener’s intelligence.  But slow down.  And remember, non-native speakers are often too embarrassed (or think it’s rude) to ask someone to slow down or to repeat what they’ve just said.  Make it easy for them by simply asking, “Am I going too fast? ” or “Would you like me to repeat that?” if you sense they are having trouble understanding.
  2. Watch your vocabulary. Which do you think is easier for a non-native speaker to understand: “Why did this phenomenon occur?”  or “Why did this happen?”  Don’t use a 50-cent word when a 10-cent word will do.
  3. Don’t tell jokes. Most people won’t understand them (humour is the last skill you acquire when studying a language), which could be very awkward indeed.
  4. Don’t use idioms or jargon. Trust me when I say that most non-native speakers will have no idea what you mean if you tell them, “Now that the cat’s out of the bag, the rest of the project should be a piece of cake.”  Not. One. Clue.
  5. And finally, a word about accents. I know and understand that everyone has an accent.  Some are heavier than others.  If you are talking to another native-English speaker, don’t worry about it.  Your accent is part of who you are.  But if you are required to work in an international environment, you might need to tame it a bit. Remember those flight simulators?

Don’t be the call that international teams dread.  Be patient, enunciate clearly, and slow down.  You’d be surprised how far a little good will can go.

Laura Marshallsay is a communications and training consultant in Frankfurt, Germany.  She helps both native and non-native English speakers communicate in a global environment.

[1] Liliana Grozdanova, ‘Interaction, Interlanguage, International English’, in Globalization in English Studies (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 194.

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