Whose English is it Anyway?

Originally published on CareerShorts.com where Kimberly has been invited to contribute blogs periodically on global leadership and project management.

My work takes me from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, where more than 50% of the people living here don’t speak English at home, to Japan and elsewhere around the world nearly every month. I have the distinct honor and pleasure of working with people from all over the world, and recently had an incredible adventure with 37 people from 12 different countries who all came together as a global team to propose the future direction of their company. It’s an incredible experience to work with such a diverse group, and a heck of a challenge due to the most basic of reasons – we all speak different languages.

Even though  all members usually speak some version of “English”, it might as well be Klingon. There’s the traditional British English, and many more, including Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English, Canadian English, English of “the islands”, African English, Singapore English, East Indian English, as well as heavily accented versions of Spanish English, German English, French English, and the worst of the worst – American. Without modifications, or an interpreter, no sustained meaningful communication is possible among these disparate groups.

If you’re a native English speaker, working in a global team, you need to stop speaking English. Stop speaking YOUR English, that is – if you want to understand, and be understood by your colleagues. Delving a bit more deeply into the various versions of the so-called “shared language” called English based on my own personal experience:

Americans – Strictly speaking you don’t speak “English”. You speak “American”.  It’s different. Just listen to someone from New Zealand speaking English and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Or catch a couple of idiom-laden blurbs of British English from a person from the UK. You won’t understand what they’re saying, and they’ll be horrified when you start talking about your“fanny pack”.

UK People – For people who didn’t grow up with British English as their native language, no one will have a clue what you mean when you start complaining about the “tallback” that delayed your arrival at work.

East Indian Colleagues – As an American Native English speaker, I reluctantly admit that I can’t understand more than 70% of “Hinglish” because the emPHAsis is on a difFERent sylLAble than I am accustomed to.

Singapore – “Singlish” is musical and beautiful, but – unless I watch your lips every moment, and assure that my attention doesn’t drift in the least – I can only understand about 50% of what you are saying.

Australians – It’s not as bad as listening to someone from Texas or Georgia, but it’s pretty tough to understand you, mates!

New Zealand Colleagues – Really, I get such a headache focusing on what you are saying that it makes the Australian accent seem almost easy to understand. As I mentioned previously, listening to you is not quite as challenging as understanding people from my own country who hail from Texas or Georgia, but it’s pretty darn demanding.

There are other examples, but you get the idea. I don’t want to beat a dead horse (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

The former CEO of ABB, Percy Barnevik, stated that the official language of the company was “bad English”. I almost agree, but I reject the negative connotations of “bad English” in favor of “Global English”. And a CEO of a Korean company advised his people that it’s more important to speak bad English than good Korean.  Here I totally agree!

Although I’m sure that most people assume that they are perfectly understandable to others when they speak English (especially my American colleagues!) in my experience they all might as well be speaking entirely different languages. The solution is not to speak English.  The solution is for ALL of us to STOP speaking English and START speaking GLOBAL English.

I’m not a linguist, but here’s a few things I’ve learned about effective communications among global teams:

– Do your L.A.P.S.s.s.s!

  • Loud – Speak loudly so people can at least receive the soundwaves.
  • Attention – Make sure you visually make contact with the person you’re talking with before starting to speak to them. Eye contact varies greatly across cultures, and can be uncomfortable, but is critical to beginning a conversation.
  • Pause – Many non-native English speakers are “translating in their head”.  Although not ideal, it’s a reality that they will need a few seconds to grock (sorry!) what you said.
  • Slow – Speak slowly . . . painfully slowly.  Imagine you are speaking in molasses, then slow down even more.
  • Simple – Use simple words. Native English speakers use over 5000 different works, but non-native speakers use something like 500 – 1500. Don’t go showing off your vocabulary if you want to be understood.
  • Short – Short sentences. No long-winded phraseology, with obscure references to previous clauses.
  • Smile – If they can’t understand you, at least they’ll like you!

– No idioms, slang, obscure references.

– Don’t never use no double negatives!

In my experience, it’s not just European, Asian, South American or African people who need to change how they communicate.  EVERYONE needs to adopt Global English in order to assure that 21st century global company teams can understand each other.

STOP speaking English. If you are a so-called “native” English speaker, DEFINITELY stop speaking English!  START speaking GLOBAL ENGLISH. It’s better for you, it’s better for your colleagues, it’s better for your company, and it’s better for your business profitability.

If we truly are going to realize the dream of a global economy where we collaborate across time zones and cultural boundaries for mutual benefit, we ALL need to change the way we communicate. Let’s not wait for “other people” to change so that it’s easier for us to communicate. Let’s all share the responsibility for improving communication and moving toward a truly global economy.

It’s in ALL of our best interests to make the pie bigger instead of arguing over who gets the crumbs. That win-win scenario begins with speaking a common language, and it’s not as easy as just saying “English”. It’s GLOBAL English. Give it a shot (sorry again!).

Wahoo!   – Scrappy Kimberly

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  1. Kimberly, I love the different ways different people speak English! Obviously, we Americans are no masters at English. The opportunities for misunderstanding are huge unless you pay attention to your conversational partners and notice how they react to what you say. I had a chance to work in Australia for a while and my wife and I were invited over to a colleagues’s house for chook on the barbie. After dinner, when my wife sat back and said she was “stuffed”, we got the strangest looks. Noticing this, I innocently asked about their reaction and was told my wife had just declared she was pregnant! Oy! Not by me, I said! We Americans have so many idioms, it’s hard not to use them because they are so ingrained in our everyday speech. I teach ESL and I’m always getting stopped when I utter something that sounds so foolish to a non-native, such as “He was on my last nerve” (a Southernism) or “Bless his heart” (another) or “She was a good sport.”. The way I look at it, the variety of English-speakers and English phrases are part of what makes life fun!

  2. I think that the best way to speak international English is to realize that our American phrases are often taken literally but can mean something different: to put someone down, to put up with something, etc. all the phrasal verbs and our sports metaphors give people a hard time and throw them a curve ball (sic). Once we get used to analyzing and adapting our speech, we can make it much smoother and easier for foreigners to understand us. Nice explanations, Kimberly!

  3. Nice post, Kimberly. I’ve been working with Chinese factories a lot over the last 5 years, and LAPSsss is good advice. Trying to speak in short sentences with simple words also forces the speaker formulate their thoughts well.

    Here are a couple of favorites from the factories.
    1. The Chinese “double confirm,” they do not double check. This is so pervasive, we even say double confirm in the US offices.
    2. “I have ever seen it” = I have seen this before. However, with an accent, it sometimes sounds like “I have never seen it.”

  4. I am often told by European and Asians both that my English is especially easy to understand. I don’t try to do anything special and I have always figured it is because I speak with a California accent that is common because most of the world learns English from Hollywood movies and TV shows. Of course, idioms are nonsense unless one is familiar with them. I also think that speaking in complete sentences is good form in many situations and it makes it easier for non-English speakers to understand. Even to other native English speakers it conveys intelligence and thoughtfulness (think Henry Higgens in My Fair Lady — based on a real person). It is easier for native speakers to fill in the gaps when information is missing. Chinese have a hard times with English pronouns so over use proper names. “I saw Bill and Bill was ..” They will often say “I saw Bill and she was ..” they get pronouns, but there is no grammatical gender in their language.

  5. Nice post, Kimberly. I’ve been working with Chinese factories a lot over the last 5 years, and LAPSsss is good advice. Trying to speak in short sentences with simple words also forces the speaker formulate their thoughts well. Here are a couple of favorites from the factories. 1. The Chinese “double confirm,” they do not double check. This is so pervasive, we even say double confirm in the US offices. 2. “I have ever seen it” = I have seen this before. However, with an accent, it sometimes sounds like “I have never seen it.”

  6. Hi Kimberly,

    Thanks for the post. While we are trying to get people to level globally, these standardized tests such as GRE, TOEFL, and others likewise in each of the countries across the world are going in the reverse direction linking skills in English to their choice of pursuing a particular field of education. Great post and resonates well on a global level, let alone between us who are more like minded.

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