I’m often struck by how easy it is for two people to miscommunicate. One person sends an email that he or she thinks is a positive, thoughtful message; the person receiving it interprets the message otherwise and takes offense. Communication breakdowns such as this occur every day between people whose first language is English. So imagine the challenge for a person whose first language is not English. Trying to make yourself understood would be further compounded by a lack of a firm grasp of the English language.
I’m often hired by large organizations to work with executives who are highly skilled at what they do. The problem is that they’re frequently held back in their career by their inability to articulate ideas in writing — without sounding unintentionally humorous. Just the other day, I received an email message from a concerned executive who wrote, “It is required for me that I write and speak good English, but I am currently feeling a bit of awkwardness on my abilities.”
I’m not surprised she’s feeling “a bit of awkwardness.” It’s obvious from her writing that she’s having difficulty with prepositions, one of the more basic concepts of English language usage. But, she is not alone. I frequently find that people in her position mix up words such as “for” and “of,” or “on” and “about.” Using the correct parts of speech can be particularly challenging for people who do a lot of technical writing, or report and proposal-based work. A good part of their difficulty is due to their tendency to translate literally from their mother tongue directly into English. This practice makes for the awkwardness that results. But whatever the reason for a person’s challenges communicating in English, it’s important to have a plan to improve one’s language skills, if you want to be taken seriously and be understood.
The Language Lab Strategies for business communication when English is your second language\
1. Get grammar: Ignore the ungrammatical nature of the title (“get grammar”), but follow the advice. You need to understand the basics of English language sentence structure. There are some good online resources, for instance the University of Ottawa’s Writing Centre.
2. Expand vocabulary: The simplest way to increase your vocabulary is to create a list of unfamiliar words, as you come across them. You’ll find your grasp of grammar steadily increases by using a dictionary and a thesaurus.
3. Embrace English: By this I mean; constantly speak and read in English, and listen to spoken English, as much as possible. (Just make sure you are reading and listening to grammatically correct English!)
4. Technique reminders: Once you understand your most common mistakes, create techniques to help you respond to situations that make you stumble. If you’re having trouble with possessives and you want to say, for example, “the coat of my dog”; turn it around and say, “my dog’s coat.” So every time you find yourself creating that construction (“the something of my something”) change it to the possessive.
5. Editing advice: My primary editing advice is simple: edit, edit edit, and edit some more! Every important communication you write should be read and rewritten carefully. If at all possible, have someone whose first language is English read it.
Of course, all of the above advice sounds like a lot of work. And yes, it is! But the payoff, in terms of improving communication skills and being more effective in the work place, is worth it.
And if you’re looking for a fun way to improve your English language skills, try spending more time around the water cooler, listening to your colleagues and exchanging small talk. The brain has a way of translating what you hear into what you write. You may also want to have a look at 15 Ways to Improve Oral Communication in Business English for the same reason. Of course, you could consider taking a Language Lab course too. No need to feel awkward, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org