Is it time for all of us to learn English?

A wake-up call is taking place in the business world with regard to language training. Companies are beginning to invest in training that helps monolingual English speakers adapt their language while communicating with colleagues who speak English as a second language. A growing number of “native English speakers” (a problematic term, but in this article we’ll use it to refer to monolingual English speakers) are recognizing that they too are responsible for clear communication and are starting to do something about it. It’s actually not that surprising. It is estimated that up to two billion people speak some level of English worldwide, leaving native speakers in a clear minority. In conversations where English is used as the lingua franca, English speakers tend to present a lot of obstacles to clear international communication. Our workshop for native speakers, titled The Travel Adapter, introduces the concept by suggesting that “Communication is not a one-way street, it’s a dance between two or more people, and it can only work if both parties participate equally”.

The International Meeting
An oft-cited scenario that describes modern reality goes something like this: A group of German and Chinese colleagues are talking together via Zoom, using English as their common language. The conversation is peppered with idiosyncratic grammar, but despite the sometimes non-standard constructions, everyone is able to communicate clearly. Everything is going well until two American teammates join the call and take the floor. The virtual room is silent. The microphones are slowly muted and the two English speakers begin to dominate the call. Some German and Chinese colleagues are struggling to keep up.

Native English speakers unknowingly create a series of obstacles that non-native speakers find difficult to circumvent: complex vocabulary, idioms, cultural references, acronyms, phrasal verbs… the list of obstacles is long. As the confusion grows, the stress also increases and international attendees begin to feel left out of the conversation. This is the problem that native speakers and their managers are slowly realizing. And the fastest way to solve this problem is to do a little training with native English speakers in addition to the standard language training program offered to non-native speakers. It is an approach that tackles the problem from both sides.

Here are five reasons why more and more companies are deciding to include monolingual English speakers in their language programs:
1. It has a better return on investment than second language speaker training
Billions of dollars are spent in the English Language Training (ELT) industry every year. It’s a huge investment of resources. Often this figure does not include the hidden costs of language training for organizations. Do employees take the training during working hours? Are they paid their normal salary during their participation? Let’s approach this in a business spirit. How many hours would it take for an adult learner to reach a level of English deemed acceptable by the company? This number could easily run into the hundreds. For reference: Cambridge English estimates that it would take around 600 hours of guided learning for a beginner to reach an upper-intermediate level (CEFR: B2). That’s eleven years of taking a one-hour a week English lesson! Most adults today don’t start their corporate language training from scratch, but there’s no denying that learning a language is something that takes time. The best way to speed things up, from a financial point of view, is to invite monolingual English speakers to small workshops created especially for them. With just a few tweaks, adaptations, and a heavy dose of language awareness, native speakers will be able to more easily meet their colleagues in the middle of the fluency gap. A two-hour workshop is enough to get the ball rolling. A practical example: there are thousands of idioms in the English language. (We just saw one in the previous paragraph: to get the ball rolling.) How many of these do we expect our second language learners to memorize? How long does it take ? If the native speakers on the team become more aware of the language they are using, then they can avoid complex expressions, rephrase them, or remember to check their understanding. The pressure on the English learner to learn all those unique idioms is suddenly removed, meaning time and energy can be spent elsewhere. After all, it is much faster to teach coping strategies to a native speaker than to expect a learner to understand all the cultural references and idioms used in the English-speaking world.

2. It improves efficiency and helps avoid miscommunication
Poor communication leads to inefficiency. According to The Economist, poor communication can cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. When a second language speaker has difficulty understanding their native speaker colleague, they are more likely to avoid things like answering phone calls, asking questions during presentations, or speaking up in meetings. This leads to delays, errors and missed opportunities, which cost money. Far too many meetings end with international colleagues guessing the details of what native speakers have said. These small miscommunications can come back to haunt the group when it is later discovered that something has been misinterpreted or misunderstood. This is also true in written communication. Receiving easy-to-understand emails encourages a faster response. No one wants to sift through a long paragraph of text looking for the message in their first language, let alone a second language. People often put these emails aside when they have time to sit down and process complex English, which can create huge delays.

3. It helps build stronger teams
Many studies have shown that empathy is a strength for productivity, life-work integration, and positive work experiences. Listening to your interlocutor and adapting your English with respect is a strong demonstration of empathy, which unites the teams. When the native speaker unwittingly makes non-native speakers feel left out, confused, or ashamed, small cracks begin to form in the relationship. Communication can quickly shift to email as people avoid virtual calls, further driving the divide between team members. Let’s not forget that everyone faces pressures inside their company that create stress – language difficulties only exacerbate these problems.

4. It generates more ideas
A survey (Business Spotlight, 2009) asking German business people about their problems with native speakers highlights an interesting point: 41% of survey respondents say they “find it difficult to interrupt discussions to give an opinion “. How many ideas are we missing by not hearing these opinions? When communication is difficult, the second language learner tends to feel guilty. This often leads to a drop in self-confidence in that language as well as possible fear of ridicule, which motivates people to keep quiet. Clever solutions to important problems are unwittingly silenced. When native speakers meet their middle class colleagues by serving them easy-to-digest bits of English, doors suddenly open. The fear of language mistakes or the risk of not understanding is diminished, and the ideas follow in their place.

5. It Empowers Employees (and Supports Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Goals)
Inclusion doesn’t just have to do with skin color, sexual orientation or gender issues. It also has to do with language, which is often used as a supposedly acceptable indicator for other types of unacceptable discrimination. Microaggressions around language and accent are reduced when monolingual speakers learn to put themselves in the shoes of their non-native colleagues. By learning how to adapt their language, native speakers often develop a deeper understanding of why it is right to do so.

The beginnings of a new industry?
Given the benefits this type of training offers to corporate clients, one might wonder why it is not already an integral part of corporate training in the same way as workplace safety or diversity, equity and inclusion. . Why were the courses not organized in combination with English courses for second language speakers? The answer to that is pretty clear. Most organizers (and staff) just assumed that the native speakers were already doing a good job. These times are changing. The combination of research, the growth of English around the world, and the push for inclusion are driving this trend. Progressive organizations, healthcare providers and universities are already booking workshops for their native English speakers and showing measurable results. We are in the exciting early days of this training, but it seems that monolingual English speakers around the world are finally recognizing that they have a role to play in clear communication.

Halsdorff, M. and Saunders, C. (2021). “The Travel Adapter: 23 Simple Lessons to Help English Speakers Communicate Successfully in Global English.”

Economist (Intelligence Unit) (2018) “Communication Barriers in the Modern Workplace.”

Online Business Survey (2009). Reported by B. Dignen (2013). “Communication for International Business”, Collins.

Matt Halsdorff has worked as a business English trainer in multinational companies since 2004. He is interested in the intersection of language and culture and fights for equality in global communication. Co-author of The Travel Adapter (2021).

Christian Saunders has been teaching English since 2010. He has over 350,000 social media followers as Canguro English, where he creates content on language learning and education reform. Co-author of The Travel Adapter (2021).

Comments are closed.