People born and raised in English-speaking countries frequently find themselves in situations where they need to simplify the way they speak in order to avoid misunderstandings when they talk to non-native English speakers.
“What do you mean by that?”
Until seven years ago, Chicago-born Ben Barron had worked only with fellow Americans. But when he took a job with Zurich Insurance Company, an international company headquartered in Switzerland, Barron found that his new colleagues across Europe, who used English as a common language, had difficulty understanding him.
Hw would say something and people would stop him and ask what he meant. So he started to become aware of some of his own verbal communication habits that might lead to misunderstandings.
After taking an in-company e-learning course to help native English speakers communicate better with non-native speakers, Barron slowed down his pace of speaking and edited his “American speak” to avoid jargon and idioms that don’t translate globally.
He also realised that he has to avoid the use of sayings and references to baseball and football.
Turning the tables
With non-native English speakers now vastly outnumbering native speakers, it’s up to the latter to be more adaptable, says Neil Shaw, intercultural fluency lead at the British Council, the UK’s international educational and cultural body. About 1.75 billion people worldwide speak English at a useful level, and by 2020 it’s expected to be 2 billion, according to the British Council.
In the Council’s new intercultural fluency courses launched in September, native English speakers in countries from Singapore to South Africa have been prompted to rethink how they communicate. According to Shaw:
It’s a bit of a revelation to many of them that their English isn’t as clear and effective as they think it is.
Increasingly, English is being used as a lingua franca and it can be a culture shock for native speakers to encounter new varieties of English.
The English language is changing quite radically, says Robert Gibson, an intercultural consultant based in Munich, Germany. The trend is not to have one or two clear standard versions like American English and British English, but to have a lot of different types of English.
Chinese English, known as chinglish, and German English, called denglish, are examples, he says.
English is also developing within organisations. In companies, they have their own style of English which is not necessarily understood by native speakers.
A native-speaker disadvantage
Mother-tongue English may not even be an advantage anymore, says Dr Dominic Watt, sociolinguistics expert at the University of York in the UK.
It’s not necessarily in your interests to be a native speaker of English because you haven’t had to go through the same learning process that the non-natives have. So they’re all on the same page and it’s the native speakers who are the odd ones out.
Gradually, native speakers are realising that something is going wrong with the way they’re communicating, says Cathy Wellings, director of the London School of International Communication in the UK. She says that:
People are presenting to a non-native speaker audience and they realise that it isn’t going across as well as at home, or they’re great negotiators at home but they don’t end up winning the deals when they take it overseas.
Slow down and shut up
The most useful change native speakers can make is to slow down their speech, says Bob Dignen, director and owner of UK-based York Associates, the international communications training provider that created Zurich Insurance’s e-learning course, English for the Native Speaker.
Native speakers on average speak 250 words per minute, while the average intermediate non-native speaker is comfortable with around 150 words per minute, Dignen explains. Articulation is also important, he says.
Native English speakers tend to use a communication style that leads unwittingly to the marginalisation of the non-native speaker in conversation, he says. It leads to dominance in terms of talking time with the monolingual speaking more than the non-native speaker. He advises:
Shutting up and asking more questions is what I counsel native speakers to do. It makes a huge, huge difference.