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Stella O'Shea

Cambridge Dictionaries Online

English Language Training Publisher

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International workforces: Supporting non-native English speakers

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It goes without saying that it is much easier for people to work together if they can communicate effectively.

But one consideration in this context is the increasingly international nature of the modern workplace.
 
As a result, HR directors have a big part to play in supporting new employees moving to the UK for the first time and helping them settle into a new job, country and culture.
 
If English is not a given individual’s first language, however, what support is actually required?
 
For a non-native English speaker, working either for or with an organisation that uses English as its first language can prove challenging. While the employee concerned may have a good conversational standard of English, the kind of language employed in the work environment is often very different.
 
Therefore, it is important that they recognise and understand business English. Not only is the subject matter and vocabulary used in business meetings dissimilar to the more casual language employed in the pub, for instance, but spoken communication and interaction also tends to be more formal.
 
Business English
 
This means that foreign workers will need to be aware of the specific vocabulary that is relevant to their particular specialism, for example, finance or marketing.
 
They will also have to have an understanding of the everyday language used in the workplace, which includes the vocabulary used in meetings or in relation to different workplace processes, practices and organisational structures.
 
There are three main problems that non-native English speakers face when working in or with an English-speaking organisation:
 
  1. Many business terms are commonly used in English conversation, but have a different meaning when used in the workplace
  2. Not all phrases add up to the sum of their parts, which means that it is not always possible to work out the meaning of terms from translating individual words literally
  3. Different countries or cultures may use the same words in different ways or attach different connotations to them.
 
The latter consideration leads us on to the issue of culture, which is a big issue that HR departments must address when supporting an international workforce.
 
For example, while the phrase a ‘long-hours culture’ implies disapproval in English, would a non-native speaker be aware of this? In some cultures, the term could sound like a positive thing.
 
Cultural considerations
 
As a result, the non-native speaker may make the mistake of using the phrase to try and sound positive, for instance, by saying “our ultimate goal is a long-hours culture”. But they would, in fact, generate the opposite impression.
 
How language is used, including tone or how formal the register is, will likewise vary between cultures, a fact that is important to recognise when conducting business internationally.
 
For instance, starting a meeting in Germany with too much small talk is considered unprofessional while, in the US, jumping straight into the formal business of the meeting can be seen as cold or rude.
 
Certainly in a workplace context, non-native English speakers tend to need most support in relation to the spoken word. This is not least because, in spoken conversation, they have less time to digest and understand what someone has said than they would if reading an email.
 
Common areas of difficulty here include conversing on the phone, negotiating, agreeing and disagreeing as well as what language to use in meetings.
 
For instance, British people often lack directness or employ ‘hedging’ techniques when disagreeing with or making requests of others in order to soften the effect and avoid sounding rude or abrupt.
 
Therefore, phrases such as ‘would you mind . . .’ or ‘I’d appreciate it if you would . . .’ are used in requests instead of issuing a more direct order or saying ‘I want you to . . .’ But while such interaction may come naturally to a native speaker, it is by no means obvious to someone from another culture.
 
Supporting non-native speakers
 
Following the credit crunch in 2008, meanwhile, more and more business and financial terms have begun creeping into everyday speech as a result of coverage in the media. This situation has made learning business English a little easier as what used to be specialist terms have now moved into the mainstream and become more familiar.
 
However, there can be differences between the ways that some words are used in general terms and the more precise and accurate meanings employed by business.
 
Non-native English speakers wishing to improve their business English should, therefore, be encouraged to read the business pages of the newspapers and watch the news. But they should also have access to dedicated learning resources to ensure that they understand the correct meanings of words and the right way of using them.
 
So what can HR directors do to best support non-native English speakers? As a starting point, there are plenty of good courses in business English that they can pay for their employees to undertake.
 
Staff should also be encouraged to ask for clarification if there is anything that they don’t understand. The best way to learn a language is simply to give it a go, ask questions and learn from your mistakes – colleagues are usually more than willing to help out in this area.
 
Finally, HR departments can help by making sure that employees have access to good resources such as dictionaries on an everyday basis, whether online, in book form or as a mobile application.
 
Such support will not only help foreign workers settle into the business but also into the way that language is used in business. Competence here will also have the benefit of assisting them in gaining a more in-depth understanding of the organisation and the wider culture in which it operates.

Stella O’Shea, English language training publisher, Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

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Stella O'Shea

English Language Training Publisher

Read more from Stella O'Shea
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