What happens when you have touched the ceiling with English as a second language classes and accent reduction, but still struggle with international communication?

Some months ago, I was scavenging through a bookstore in downtown Toronto for some inspiration. I had a customer time before who had an important presentation in South East Asia. 

His institution had sent him to an English class where he exceeded expectations and passed with flying colors, but he still felt inadequate for his seminar.
His challenge wasn’t much about the people who spoke English as a first language, but the majority of attendees who also spoke it as a second language. 

What’s missing after English class?

This is the first in a series of blogs where I will focus on communicating in English as a second language in international business.

• One in four people worldwide now speaks English.
• According to the British Council, English is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide.
• Non-native speakers of English outnumber native English speakers 3 to 1
• There is a global revolution in which hundreds of millions of people are learning English, the planet’s language for commerce, technology–and, increasingly, empowerment, says Newsweek.

A challenge I usually find in my work and with different customers is that most resources focus primarily on helping beginners or intermediate level non-native speakers develop a command of English. 

However, in many cases, experienced international professionals who use English in their everyday lives lack some resources to improve their ability to communicate effectively internationally.

Leading in English

In this search for a beacon of hope, I came across an oft-overlooked piece of literature. The text is called “Leading in English: how to confidently communicate and inspire others in the international workplace,» by D. Vincent Varallo, Joerg Schmitz and Stephan M. Mardyks.

These international consultants assist global companies and executives in communication and cultural interaction, in cases that are just starting to shed light in countries where international business clashes with cultural and language barriers, such as my home country, Chile.

As a result, the book is pretty impressive. In summary, the authors explain how there is a global conversation going on, and it is happening in English.

In fact, native and non-native speakers struggle alike with getting themselves understood across different cultures and language barriers while speaking in English.

For instance, how do you structure your narrative if English is your second language or you’re trying to communicate with someone with English as a second language?

The authors of the book found many professionals struggling with communication, such as:
• Non-native speaking leaders working in English in their home countries.
• Speakers of English as a second language in multilingual environments, English speaking countries to native speaking workforce and native speaking bosses.
• Native speaking leaders working in countries is used in business but is not the primary language or working on global or multilingual environments.
• Native speakers in their home countries leading multilingual workforces or non-native speakers. 

In fact, the struggles are somehow similar in terms of generically communicating effectively, regardless of the language. 

They found exciting archetypes:

• Native speakers who hear an accent and assume unconsciously that their counterpart has less intelligence and capacity.
• Misunderstood non-native speakers who are not thrilled and lose confidence in another language, frustrating them.
• Surprised native speakers finding that their native tongue is hard to put out in a non-native environment.
• Confused speakers of English as a second language who don’t know how to improve their communication skills.
• And the unheard non-native speakers who struggle with idioms and issues because they struggle with English.

Have you dealt with any of these scenarios?

It is pretty common to take for granted one’s language in front of others. Nowadays, many people have arrived in Chile, speaking Spanish as a second language. And, if anyone knows the way Chileans speak to one another, getting settled with the accent is quite a struggle.

«Not the Queen’s English anymore»

I never thought about it until I went to study in the UK. In college, 9 out of 10 students I studied with were not British, and half of us came from a non-English speaking country. I remember one seminar where one classmate from East Africa who, in a broken English, explained his policy position to the teacher.

Our professor replied: “you are absolutely right.” None of us in the rest of the class knew what they were talking about. Was it the teachers’ fault? Our classmate’s problem? Was it the rest of the course? Simply speaking, it was a problem of communication.

In fact, Dr. Mario Saraceni, of the University of Portsmouth, called on native English speakers to ‘give up their claim to be the guardians of the purest form of the language.’ ‘Language use is fundamentally about mutual understanding.’ ‘How it is spoken by others should not be seen as second best.’

The authors of Leading in English have set up a three-step process:

  1. Speaking Clearly: as opposed to accent modification classes, many people may have strong accents by the primary focus should be on developing confind3ence
  2. Speaking with Impact: shifting the mindset where the speaker no longer worries about English, it focuses on the audience by answering the question of what the listener needs to best understand communication.
  3. Developing a Compelling Narrative: leaders create a connection by understanding the power of visualization through examples, scenarios, and targeted storytelling.

If we don’t focus first on our message and the audience who will listen to the narrative, it doesn’t matter whether we are native or non-native English speakers; there is an underlying problem of broken communication.

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