How to enhance mutual understanding in international business.
von Francesco Cassano
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International English, Anyone?

A wise man, whose name unfortunately just eludes me, once said that English didn’t belong to its native speakers any longer. Considering that non-native speakers of English are supposed to have outnumbered native speakers by a ratio of 3-11, this seems so obvious a fact that no-one should need to be reminded of it, or should they? Actually, no, as given the impact of globalisation and the Internet, it is more likely than not that the vast majority of native speakers either have already had contact with a non-native speaker of the language at some point or another, or if they haven’t as yet, they will have a sporting chance to do so sometime in the not-too-distant future. In either case, why should you bother? Well, you definitely should if you belong to the caste of managers whose business is becoming increasingly international; for if you do, you will likely have already encountered what I have dubbed the "two inconvenient truths about English used in international contexts”, and, more importantly, their concomitant, which is widespread mutual misunderstanding at business meetings, in telephone or video conferences and so forth.

The first of my inconvenient truths is the fact that native English speakers are hardly ever completely understood by international audiences. And since most cultures of the world share a deeply ingrained fear of losing face, here’s truth no. 2: your audiences will probably not let you know whether or not they have really got your message. From these two truths and from the gist of the first paragraph of this article follows a simple syllogism:

Thesis: There are more non-native speakers than native speakers of English.
Antithesis: Internationally, native speakers’ English is often misunderstood or not understood at all.
Synthesis: Native speakers of English should adjust their language to enhance mutual understanding in international contexts.

So, what then are the perceived characteristic features of a native speaker’s use of English that non-native audiences struggle with? My choice of the adjective perceived in the previous sentence was intentional as eg tempo, or the speed of speaking, is indeed a matter of perception as, scientifically, there is no consistent evidence whatsoever that English is spoken faster than other languages. Yet, most of our customers, i.e. learners or foreign-language users of English, share the impression that English was invariably spoken at breakneck speed.

Anyway, here’s what foreign or second-second-language users of English find particularly difficult about engaging in conversations with native speakers:

  • Accents
  • High speech rates
  • Unfamiliar vocabulary

Now, how then can a native speaker possibly adjust their language to enhance the intelligibility of their spoken messages and hence make their conversational exchange with non-native speaking audiences more effective and fruitful? Well, as far as concerns accent, it will be equally hard if not impossible for you and me to conceal ours. After all, our accent is a bit like an ID, which, whether we like it or not, reveals at least some of our roots. Still, an accent can be contained or, for lack of a better term, tamed. And a very simple way of doing this is becoming a little more observant of how we speak. Mind you, everything that I’m saying here goes for speakers of just about any language; the fact that the focus is on English is just because it is and looks set to stay the no. 1 lingua franca of the world. Now, being ”observant” of your language with regard to accent means that you might try and speak a little more clearly, if need be even to the extent of artificiality. Beyond accent, there is one feature of English which is inherent to the language irrespective of national or regional variations and which linguistics refers to as ”connected speech”. Simply put, connected speech is a collective term for the various ways in which native speakers of English make a sequence of two or more words sound as if they were just one single word. Just think of how you would speak the sentence He walked to work, the adjective-noun collocation green park, the conditional perfect in She should have known better, or the reference to two large Asian countries, namely China and Japan. In conclusion, articulating everything that you say a little more clearly will make a great difference and help foreign-language users understand you so much better. With regard to speech rate, things could hardly be any more simply resolved than by making lower speech rates your default setting when you talk to someone whose native tongue isn’t English. If you find this too hard to remember every time you talk to a nonnative speaker, just try walking in their shoes and imagine eg the following: you are a foreign-language user of German, and are to take part in a business meeting held in German. I guess I need not say that, as a German idiom has it, you would only ”verstehen Bahnhof” if all the Germans present used their language at speech rates they deemed natural!

Lastly, how can you deal with vocabulary that your non-native speaking interlocutors might find difficult to understand? To begin with, at any rate, avoid all idioms. And if I say all, I mean all, for you likely wouldn’t understand all Italian, French, or German idioms either even if you were a fairly competent speaker of those languages. So, instead of saying that you think some of your team are barking up the wrong tree, tell them that they seem not to have found the best solution to the issue in hand as yet. Secondly, try to forego phrasal verbs such as put up with, take in or turn down. In fact, even very advanced speakers of English have problems understanding them as they will try in vain to grasp their meaning based on the literal meanings of their components. Actually, you could take a playful approach to avoiding phrasal verbs by asking yourself for possible alternatives. So, what then are some possible synonyms for the above phrasal verbs that even less advanced speakers of English would be able to understand? Remember, being a native speaker of English puts you in a privileged position indeed, for, thanks to the predominance of English in international communication, it’s always the others who feel embarrassed or ashamed when they try to make sense of what you say and in turn convey their intended meanings to you. So, if you make your English just a little less native and more international, you not only alleviate the embarrassment on the part of your non-native conversational partners, but you will likely also make your international communications both more effective and enjoyable.

1 Crystal, David (2003a). English as a Global Language (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 69.
ISBN 978-0-521-53032-3.

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