Why native English speakers can be at a disadvantage working globally

Sometimes in a room full of non-native English speakers, everyone understands each other apart from when a native English speaker starts talking!

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We native English speakers might feel very privileged that English has become the lingua franca of business, politics, education and tourism around the world. But although we are speaking in our native tongue, we are not always the clearest communicators when talking with non-native English speakers. Indeed some may say, we are at a positive disadvantage. Sometimes in a room full of non-native English speakers, everyone understands each other apart from when a native English speaker starts talking!

Intercultural communications can be a minefield

Why is this, and why do we need help to communicate clearly and effectively in order to achieve successful exchanges and partnerships? Intercultural communications can be a minefield, with body language, different assumptions and different degrees of ‘coded’ language presenting many well documented potential pitfalls in our international world. It is surely therefore imperative that we communicate verbally as clearly as possible in order to give ourselves a chance at overcoming cultural obstacles and building relationships.

Missed out on the experience of learning a language

Another reason for our poor communication record derives from the fact that native English speakers have a reputation worldwide for being monolingual. Whilst this is of course a generalisation, it is true that the necessity and drive is not present to push us to learn a second language from a young age. It is this experience of learning a language from scratch, the hard work, the embarrassment at inevitable silly mistakes, the joy of breakthroughs and the sheer bafflement, that give us a humility, empathy and tolerance towards others.

The language learning process also give us a basic understanding of how a sentence hangs together and the challenges of mastering different sounds. This can make it harder to analyse and therefore see beyond a non-native speaker’s mistakes. We may also be less able to ‘zone in’ to variants of pronunciation which may make us dismiss the English as incomprehensible or low level.

Some native speakers can come across as playing a power game

Whether it’s intentional or not, some native speakers can come across as playing a power game in a room of non-native speakers, leaving the latter feeling self-conscious and judged when speaking English. Speaking too fast, using idioms, abbreviations and puns, making cultural references that are only understandable to the native speakers: these habits can alienate others, remove opportunities to build relationships and can even come across as bullying and one-upmanship. Either way, such behaviour is hardly conducive to open, honest relationships built on mutual trust and respect.

Mutual understanding is always the first step to successful business

In order to thrive in the ‘new normal’ world of the future, whether online or face to face, mutual understanding and trust are always going to be the first steps to successful business transactions. Let’s maximise our chances by consciously modifying our style when communicating internationally. In our next article, we will examine just how this can be done simply and effectively. 

Liz Collins

Liz Collins

As an Account Manager at Corinium Language Associates, I am involved in the language training, intercultural and translation aspects of the business. I am fortunate to be able to indulge my fascination for all things linguistic and intercultural with a team that is passionate about languages! My background is in teaching French to adults and young people, after living in France for some years.