English May Be Your First Language, But It’s Not Everybody’s

English May Be Your First Language, But It’s Not Everybody’s

A client told me a story about an interaction she had on the phone which I think is symptomatic of a problem that needs solving. It’s the problem of being misunderstood among people who speak different native languages. This situation arises because our global economy has created global workplaces, and so we transact commerce with people all the time from different cultures whose native language could be anything.

My client’s native language is Korean. She functions independently in English, not fluent, but certainly capable. What she finds difficult are phone conversations. Those of you who speak a second (or third or fourth) language have no doubt noticed that talking on the phone is by far the most difficult type of interaction for any non-native speaker. For starters, you can’t see the person you’re talking to, so gestures are no help and lip-reading is out. Then there’s the added problem that phones distort, and cell phones can make voices blurry, when they’re not cutting in and out mercilessly — none of which helps when you’re trying to do business in a language that isn’t yours.

My client had called to activate a credit card. The conversation went OK until the customer service rep asked her a question: “Prow hole?” At least that’s what she thought he said.

Politely and most apologetically, she said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

He repeated, “Are you prow hole?” Again she apologized and again he repeated the question.

He was getting a little annoyed, she could tell, so she asked him if he would explain his question. Instead he said again — a little louder this time — “Listen to me very carefully: Are you prow hole?

She was afraid to say she was, not having any idea what she would be owning up to. He asked again, and again preceded his question with “Listen to me carefully” until finally, and again most apologetically, she said she was sorry she couldn’t finish the conversation, and she thanked him for being so patient. Even though he wasn’t.

He was asking her if she was the primary holder of the card. Accustomed as he was to asking that question hundreds of times a week, he probably spoke quickly and ran his words together, playing fast and loose with the consonants as he would with a native speaker of English.

That’s common among native English speakers, but it can be quite baffling for non-native speakers. For example:

“Ju eat?”

“No. Ju?”

“Not yet. I’m hungry!”

So I’m guessing that “Are you the primary holder?” may have come out “Are you th promry holdr?” swallowing that last syllable, which would not have confused a native speaker in the least because they’d mentally fill in under-pronounced syllables.

Engineers come from all over, and you probably work in a global workplace, with colleagues from India, China, Bhutan, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Japan, or Russia. They speak English, you think to yourself as you notice their accents and overlook mistakes.

But speaking a second language isn’t a binary condition. It’s isn’t the case that you either speak it or you don’t. In other words, you can’t assume that just because your colleague from China is speaking to you in English that they’re fluent and you can speak to them as quickly and casually as you’d speak to any native speaker.

There are some simple things we can all do to improve our conversations across linguistic territory.

  1. When Non-Native Speakers Fake It

Sometimes non-native speakers appear to understand. They get part of what was said but not all, they nod, they smile at the right time, and the speaker thinks they’ve been correctly understood. But the listener missed something. They know they didn’t get it all, but was it something important? I know this firsthand because I’ve done it myself when I’ve been in French-speaking countries. My French is adequate, but I’ve agreed to things I shouldn’t have and disagreed with things I should have gone along with, all because I thought I had most of it, and I smiled at the right time.

Bottom line: It’s not uncommon for a functional speaker to get some, or maybe a lot, of what is said and try to fill in the rest. They may hesitate to ask for the rest because all the native speakers have moved on to the next subject.

What can you do? Watch for any hesitation on the part of the listener. If it looks like they’re not quite with you, keep talking, keep explaining. Let them ask a question, or ask them one. But don’t ask “Did you understand?” because they’ll probably say yes, not wanting to be the one who didn’t.

  1. Vary Your Vocabulary

If you think the person you’re talking to isn’t getting it, use different words. When the customer service rep kept saying “Prow hole?” to our unfortunate credit card activator, that was no help to her. If he’d said, “Is this your credit card, or your husband’s?” that might have helped. Or “Are you the only person in your family with this credit card?” But he stuck to his script instead.

In an engineering environment, misunderstanding technical language is not the issue. It’s all the words surrounding the technical terms that you have to worry about. Luckily, there’s always another way to say something.

“Accountability for deliverables is of the utmost importance in assessing job performance, and this project will be no exception” could be challenging for a non-native speaker. If you want members of your project team to know how their performance will be evaluated, find another way to say it.

“We expect everyone on this project to do what’s expected, and on time, and to own the work they do. On this project, that will determine how well you did.”

Just because multi-syllable words are popular in the workplace doesn’t mean they’re necessary or useful.

If you’re extra interested in this, Cambridge University Press offers a free online dictionary (https://www.englishprofile.org/) that tells you what level of proficiency a speaker has in order to know a particular word. It uses a structure called the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR, for short) which organizes speaking and comprehension levels into A1 and 2 for beginners, B1 and 2 for intermediate, and C1 and 2 for advanced. As I said, you’d have to be extra interested to go this far, but if you were especially curious about a particular word, you could look it up there.

  1. Throttle Back

Speak more slowly. It’s tempting to barrel along at full speed, but if you want your message to land, slow down a bit. Speaking quickly is a hard habit to break, but you can do it for a few phrases that you suspect are causing confusion among non-native speakers.

  1. Admire the Accomplishment

It’s not easy to operate in a second language in another culture. If you’ve tried it, you know. So be patient, and encourage non-native speakers. Everyone likes a compliment, so pay them one.

Or you can ask “How old were you when you started learning English?,” a reasonable question you can ask any colleague. In many Asian countries, English studies begin by middle school. What language were you studying in middle school?

There’s a joke that goes like this:

What do you call someone who speaks three languages?

Trilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

Bilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks one language?

American.

We’re fortunate, those of us who grew up speaking English, that we got in on the ground floor of the what is now the international language of business, technology, and science. It’s a complicated, inconsistent, nuanced language. We take its weirdness and subtleties for granted, but non-native speakers don’t have that luxury.

So to improve cross-cultural, cross-lingual conversations where you work, be aware that you’re swimming around freely one of the world’s most complicated languages. Help others have as easy a time as you are.


Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.

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