The worlds’ biggest companies are trying to figure out how people from different language, culture and business backgrounds can better
- understand one another
- work as a team toward a common mission
- create synergy that fuels cooperation and collaboration
Here is a startling and growing phenomenon: more people are working in English around the world as a second language than as a first. Logic then tells us that the fortunes of millions of professionals are tied to their ability to communicate effectively with people who do not speak their native language. We see the struggles in our clients every day.
A most interesting and unique dynamic, discovered doing our research for Leading in English, is that non-native speakers of English from various language backgrounds understand each other better than they do native speakers of English. How could that possibly be? Well, any language has imbedded cues, clues, and codes that creates barriers for others to understand. The use of body language, gestures, idioms and other idiosyncrasies can be puzzling for second language speakers.
Wendy, a central character in Leading in English, is a native Mandarin speaker born in China but living and working in Dallas. Her English skills are advanced, but her messaging lacks pop and pizzazz. Accordingly, the company hesitates to put her in front of clients, and her performance reviews indicate that communication skills are holding her back. The company offered an accent-reduction class—the conventional solution for many non-native speakers. Wendy, her real name is Wenling, is at the crossroads and no one seems to know how to help her.
And if you think it is only a problem for non-native speakers, think again. Another character in Leading in English is Liz, who is from New Jersey and lives in Brazil. She struggles mightily with her Brazilian colleagues. While the company’s official language is English, Liz has a hard time being understood and feels like an outsider.
Native speakers communicating with other native speakers are not even immune from the misunderstandings across language and culture. An example, Edward from Brooklyn was transferred to London—with disastrous results as his British counterparts struggled to understand his mumbled phrases laced with a thick New-York city accent. Another instance is Carl, a university professor born and raised in Arkansas, who suffers from the stereotype threat that accents can elicit.
We are searching and recommending solutions to this growing dilemma. We want to foster better communication and help leaders build confidence that will inspire, encourage, and motivate those around them. We hope you enjoy reading Leading in English.