ALC English Journal Article April 2013

“English” is Different From “Communication”

QUESTION: “I’m assigned to go on an overseas business trip next week and my English isn’t good enough! How can I be ready in one week? Help!”

 ANSWER: One week?! That’s not much time. But don’t worry, I have some helpful advice for you that can be implemented even in one short week.

“Bad English” is Good Enough! Although many people say English is the international business language, perfect English is not required.  Percy Barnevik, former CEO of the American construction company ABB, once joked that the common language at ABB was “bad English”.  Over a billion people use English, but more than 75% of them are NOT native speakers. Relax! You are in the majority.

The Path to Progress is Paved with Mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes when speaking English. A much bigger mistake is waiting until your English is perfect. Learning comes from practice, and mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. Many non-native speakers hesitate to use English for fear of making embarrassing mistakes, but most people really don’t care if you speak perfectly, and won’t blame you if you do make mistakes. Why? Because we native speakers make plenty of mistakes! I sometimes make mistakes in speaking, and if one of my friends corrected my bad English I’d think they were incredibly rude. Fail forward, in the direction of improvement!

“English” is Different From “Communication”. You say your English isn’t good enough, but what you really need on a business trip is communication skills. In some face-to-face conversations the words carry less than 10% of the speaker’s message. The vast majority of meaning is communicated via tone of voice, facial expression, eye contact, gestures, and body language. In the business world you can also use data, graphs, pictures and drawings to explain your ideas more clearly.

Communication Frustration Also Happens Among Native Speakers. Some people get frustrated with their inability to communicate their ideas effectively in English. But, as any married couple can tell you, misunderstandings are not limited to conversations between people with different native languages. Don’t immediately assume that a frustrating miscommunication is the result of language differences. It could be completely unrelated to your English ability. Don’t give up! If you’re determined to bridge the communication gap you’ll find a way.

Get an Interpreter. If money can fix a problem, it’s not a problem, it’s an expense! If perfect communication is vital to your business trip, then ask for the support you need to successfully complete your mission. Recruit a colleague with good English skills to go with you, or hire a professional interpreter. Can’t afford one? Technology can help. Many computer programs and smart phone apps exist that support cross-language communication.

Native English Speakers Must Change, Too!  Remember, non-native speakers of English are in the majority. Ask native speakers to slow down, repeat what they say, say it differently, write it, draw it, or otherwise change their communication style to more effectively communicate with you. Insist that they avoid slang, idioms, and unnecessarily complicated words and grammar.

Remember, the goal of communication in the business world is never perfect English, it’s perfect understanding. English is only one of the tools in your communication toolbox, so be proud, speak loud, smile, and fail forward!

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