The other day I received an email message from a businessman, who is not a native English speaker. He included the following disclaimer after his signature, “Please apologize any spelling mistakes as this message was sent from my mobile phone.” Clearly, this disclaimer is not a solution to his English communication problem; it’s more a declaration of a problem!
This grammatically incorrect disclaimer brings to mind the many challenges that people, whose first language is not English, face, as they make their way in the business world. It’s not just about learning a new language. It’s also about learning how to understand and to navigate the culturally diverse workforce. And it’s a problem that can be solved both by the employee and the employer.
Consider the following “case studies” of two people I’ve helped through my work at the Language Lab. Both scenarios highlight issues that are commonly faced by “English as a second language” (ESL) employees, in North America.
Case Study One: “John,” an employee of a telecommunications company, has extensive knowledge of technology and network solutions.
The Problem: A struggle to communicate — in English — the details of technical issues. John was very frustrated by his difficulty reporting details of the status of technical breakdowns, in the field. And his director was just as frustrated because she was not able to get quick, in-the-moment updates.
The Solution: Role-playing phone calls, that mirrored the kinds of conversations John needed to have with his director, vastly improved his ability to give short verbal reports.
Case Study Two: “Joe,” a database designer, is highly knowledgeable and well versed in his field.
The Problem: Joe spoke with a mumble, and was uncomfortable with the basic cultural and social interactions needed to be successful in his workplace. He also had an attitude that was not always helpful. He thought if he provided clients with the information they requested, which was frequently difficult to understand, he was doing his job well. His manager had to explain to him, that people who did not know him, had the impression (because of his poor communication and social skills) that he was incompetent.
The Solution: Three months working on written and oral communication skills, and focusing on typical day-to-day interactions. (Frankly, I think the simple task of telling Joe that it was perfectly fine to say, “How’s it going?” when encountering co-workers, made his work life immeasurably better!)
These two “case studies” clearly demonstrate what has become the reality of North American business life. If you run a company, it is very much in your interest to recognize this reality and help your ESL employees improve their skills, so they contribute effectively, in the workplace. If you are an ESL employee, improving your English language skills is essential, in order to get ahead, in the workplace. And here’s why:
3 Top Reasons Why It’s Good Business to Improve Employees’ ESL Skills
1.) Cultural Diversity: The workforce is increasingly culturally diverse, and some highly skilled immigrants do not have commensurate English-language skills. Providing them with appropriate language training will help them reach their potential.
2.) Cultural Cues: Understanding cultural cues and innuendoes is a struggle for many ESL employees. To navigate in the workforce requires understanding simple greetings, ways of communicating in common spaces, etc. Employees will make a much better contribution to a business and to their careers if they receive support in acquiring or improving these skills.
3.) Cultural Universality: Firms around the globe are adopting English as the official language. Employees, who have effective skills and North American experience, have a significant advantage in the business world. Businesses, whose markets are global, will stand to benefit from employees, who have a good grasp of the English language.
Some large companies do recognize the above reality and are responding. (See: How Measured English Proficiency Benefits Business). As well, studies have been done to try and assess the degree to which a lack of English language skills may impact the workplace. (See: Reducing the Impact of Language). Of course, it’s important to remember that in the end, it benefits all if we try and understand the challenges faced by ESL employees. But, it’s not just understanding the challenges; it’s taking action to help them become better English language communicators. It’s Canadian Citizenship Week (Oct. 10-16), so think about how lucky we are to have so many skilled people from all over the world living and working in Canada. Think about how you as an employer can make a difference.
If you need help with your English language skills, or those of your employees, contact me at The Language Lab.