Native English speakers are the worst communicators in the world
Lennox Morrison, correspondent for Features magazine
There is no chance of understanding in a room full of non-native speakers. It may be their language that they speak, but the message is often lost.
It was just one word in one e-mail, but it caused huge financial losses for a multinational company.
A message written in English was sent by a native speaker to a colleague for whom English was a second language. Unsure of the meaning of the word, the recipient found two conflicting meanings in his dictionary. And chose the wrong one.
A few months later, senior management investigated why the project, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, failed. “It all boils down to this one word,” says Chia Suan Chong, a British communication skills and cross-cultural relations coach, who did not reveal the tricky word because it is very industry-specific and perhaps easily identifiable. “Everything got out of control because both sides were thinking about the opposite.”
Suddenly an American or a Brit walks into the room and no one understands them – Chia Suan Chong
When such misunderstandings occur, native speakers are usually to blame. Ironically, Chong says, they are worse at getting their message across than people for whom English is a second or third language.
“Most native speakers are satisfied that English has become a global language in the world. They feel they don’t need to spend time on another language,” Chong says. “But often in a boardroom full of people from different countries who speak English and everyone understands each other, then suddenly an American or a British person walks into the room and no one can understand them.”
“Native speakers of English tend to be monolingual and don’t understand language variation very well,” says Professor Jennifer Jenkins (Photo: University of Southampton)
It turns out that non-native speakers speak with more purpose and care, which is typical of someone who speaks a second or third language. English-speakers, on the other hand, often speak too fast for others to catch and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture, Chong says. In emails, they use obscure abbreviations like “LLC” instead of just saying they won’t be at work.
“A native English speaker … is the only one who doesn’t feel the need to accommodate or adapt to others,” she adds.
Attitude towards your audience
Since most people around the world are not native English speakers, it is English speakers who may have to try.
Usually native speakers of English dominate meetings about 90% of the time – Michael Blattner
“Native speakers are at a disadvantage when you’re in a lingua franca situation,” where English is used as the common denominator, says Jennifer Jenkins, professor of global English at Britain’s University of Southampton. “It is difficult to understand and explain myself to native English speakers.”
A lingua franca is a language or dialect systematically used for communication between people whose native languages are other.
Non-native speakers usually use a more limited vocabulary and simpler expressions, without colorful vocabulary and slang. Because of this, they understand each other at face value. Jenkins found, for example, that international students at a British university understood each other well in English and quickly adapted to helping the least agile members of any group.
What the hell is an ETA?
Zurich-based Michael Blattner’s native language is Swiss-German, but professionally she communicates mainly in English. “I often hear from foreign colleagues that they understand me better when they listen to me than when the locals do,” says the Head of Training and Offerings for IP Operations at Zurich Insurance Group.
Jean-Paul Nerier developed Globish – a new lighter form of English shortened to 1,500 words and with a simple but standard grammar – as a tool (Photo: Jean-Paul Nerier)
One problem is downsizing.
“The first time I was working in an international context, someone said, ‘Eta 16:53,’ and I thought, ‘What the hell is an ETA?'” says Blattner. “To make matters even more confusing, some abbreviations in British English are very different from American English.”
And then there’s cultural style, says Blattner. When a British person responds to a proposal with the words: That’s interesting, another British person will understand it: That’s rubbish. (in Russian it will be “Kh…nya kaks”). But representatives of other nationalities will take the word interesting at face value, he says.
Unusual words, speaking speed and mumbling don’t help, he adds, especially if the phone or video connection is poor quality. “You start to get distracted and do something else because there’s no chance of understanding,” he says.
At meetings, he adds, “usually English speakers dominate about 90% of the time. But other people were invited for a reason.”
Non-native speakers of English often do not know how to speak English internationally – Dale Coulter
Dale Coulter, head of English at TLC International House, a language training company in Baden, Switzerland, agrees: “People who speak English and don’t know another language often don’t know how to speak English internationally.”
In Berlin, Coulter saw German employees of a Fortune 500 company being briefed by video link from its California headquarters. Although the Germans spoke English well, they only caught the gist of what their American project manager was saying. Thus, among themselves, they came to an agreed version, which may or may not coincide with the idea of the California employees.
“Most information is lost,” says Coulter.
The simpler the better
It is the native speaker who often risks missing the opportunity to conclude a deal, warns Frenchman Jean-Paul Nerrier, former senior manager of international marketing at IBM.
“Too many non-English speaking people, especially Asians and French, are too concerned about not ‘losing face’ – and nod in agreement, although they do not understand the essence of the message at all,” he says.
That’s why Nerier developed Globish, a purified form of English reduced to 1,500 words, with simple but standard grammar. “It’s not a language, it’s a tool,” he says. Since launching Globish in 2004, it has sold over 200,000 Globish textbooks in 18 languages.
“If you can communicate effectively using limited and simple language, you save time, avoid misinterpretation, and avoid communication errors,” says Nerier.
You need to be short, clear and direct and you need to simplify Rob Staggles
An Englishman who has worked hard to learn French, Rob Staggles, senior director of marketing in Europe at telecommunications giant NTT Communications, offers advice for English-speaking users. Paris-based Staggles says: “You need to be short, clear and direct, and you need to simplify. But there is a fine line between reality and indulgence.”
“It’s a tightrope walk,” he adds.
Give others a chance
According to Jenkins, when trying to communicate in English with a group of people at different levels of speed, it’s important to be receptive and adaptable, tuning your ear to a range of different uses of the English language.
“People who have learned other languages are good at it, but native English speakers tend to speak only one language and don’t adapt very well to language variations,” she says.
According to Staggles, in meetings, English-speaking people tend to move at what they consider to be normal speed and rush to fill in gaps in the conversation.
“Maybe the native speaker is trying to formulate a sentence,” he says. “You just have to wait a little bit and give them a chance. And then after the meeting they approach and ask: What was it? Or they leave and nothing happens because they didn’t understand.”
He recommends making the same point several different ways and asking for any kind of confirmation, reaction, or action.
“If there’s no complicity,” warns Stagles, “you won’t know if you’ve been understood.”