Do You Do Business in Your Mother Tongue?

J-GMP - Do You Do Business in Your Mother Tongue?

If so – lucky you.

Most of the world works in a language that is not their first language. And if you are able to conduct your business in your first language, how often do you find yourself communicating with people who don’t speak it as their first language? There are more people in China alone learning English as a second language, than there are mother tongue English speakers in the whole of the rest of the world…

It’s a global world out there. Effective communication is vital. And there’s a skill to talking with people who don’t share your level of fluency in your language. Who wouldn’t want to be the manager that the German CEO finds it easiest to talk with? Or the salesperson who can get their message across in Japan? Or the supervisor that the Polish workforce understand?

If English is your first language (let’s call it your L1), chances are you don’t have much in the way of an L2 or an L3. You might have had to learn French or Spanish at school. You might be able to order a couple of beers on holiday. But seriously, beyond that, most of us are rubbish at foreign languages. And when we are in other countries, we find that the locals speak English pretty well, so we don’t have to bother – so we don’t. And even if we do, chances are those beers we just ordered will be given to us in English

‘Ten euros please’

which reinforces the whole ‘it’s not worth bothering’ thing.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that you scurry off and start learning a language (but don’t let me stop you). But I am going to suggest ways in which you can avoid making it any harder than it needs to be for your audience to understand you, and for you to understand them. English is a difficult language to learn – seriously, if you were looking for a lingua franca you really wouldn’t choose English.

So – some things to avoid

  • Imagine you’re a manager, and you say this to your (not fully fluent in English) team – ‘You really must pull your socks up. Head office are on our backs, and if we don’t get a move on it’ll be curtains for all of us’. Will they understand you? So – rule one – say what you actually mean, in words that mean what you actually want to say.
  • There are just too many words. English has a huge number of words compared to other languages (1 million, compared to, say, French, which has about 250,000), including many words that all mean pretty much the same thing. Your non-L1 audience may know some of those words, but are unlikely to have come across all of them. Think about this memo – ‘Memo to tractor/trailer operators – All truck drivers are reminded that they must ensure their wagons are fully secured overnight. Any lorry driver failing to lock their vehicle will be severely reprimanded. Signed HGV manager.’ Do you remember being taught at school not to use the same word over and over? Rule two – forget that. It’s much better to pick a word and stick to it, even if it means your old Y3 teacher has kittens.
  • Phrasal verbs. What the flying furkle is a phrasal verb, I hear you say. And yet you use them all the time. A phrasal verb is a verb that comprises more than one word. For example – to work out, to break down, to fill in, to carry on. You’ll be able to think of more. The problem with these verbs is that they aren’t easy to translate – if you were to look up the word ‘carry’ in the dictionary, and then the word ‘on’, and put the two meanings together, you wouldn’t get the meaning of ‘to carry on’. Which makes them difficult to understand. So – rule three – avoid phrasal verbs. Use ‘big’ words instead. ‘Continue’ instead of ‘carry on’, ‘exercise’ instead of ‘work out’ – unless of course you mean ‘solve’. ‘Not working’ instead of ‘broken down’. ‘Complete’ instead of ‘fill in’ – or ‘punch’, depending on the context… See what I mean about English being difficult?

And finally, when the conversation is flowing, be aware of how your audience’s own language can affect their use of English.

  • Some languages don’t have definite or indefinite articles (‘the’ and ‘a’) – this means that often the wrong article is used, or missed out altogether, making statements sound odd or abrupt (‘Can you give me the lift?’ ‘Do you want beer?’).
  • There may be unexpected gaps in their vocabulary – they may, for example, be able to talk at length about work-related topics, but find small-talk difficult.
  • Many languages put the noun in front of the adjective (‘the door blue’ rather than ‘the blue door’) – to be honest, it does make much more sense to say what you’re talking about, and then describe it afterwards.
  • For people whose first language doesn’t use the Roman alphabet, there is the added challenge of reading and writing in English. Reading print may be fine, but handwritten text may be challenging. And their own writing may look unsophisticated – for example someone whose first language uses a non-alphabetic script is unlikely to do ‘joined up’ writing.

This is just the tip of a very large iceberg – if you would like to know more about this subject, please ask about our training on ‘Communication in a Global World’. It’s a half-day, interactive session, suitable for small groups (8-12), and costs £500.00 + VAT.

Get in touch and we will be happy to advise you.

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