Language skills are often trumpeted as a cornerstone of social integration, allowing citizens to participate fully in their host communities. British prime minister David Cameron recently announced a £20 million fund ($29 million) for English language lessons to tackle radicalization in the UK, for example. Similarly, US presidential hopeful Donald Trump has called for assimilation and English-speaking in the US.
But with transnational mobility and trade as defining features of our times, have we considered Cameron’s or Trump’s own supporters and their ability to speak English within a wider international community?
And now ironically, there is mounting evidence that in international business, native English speakers are failing to integrate as a result of their shortcomings in tailoring their English for this context. When it comes to English—the international language not only for business but also higher education and cross-border collaboration—research shows that, far from being able to rest on their laurels, native speakers are not masters of the world’s global language.
Speakers who have English as their mother tongue can find themselves in a baffling predicament. While at home they are persuaded that the rest of the world now speaks their lingo. Abroad they discover that their own English renders them incomprehensible to colleagues and business partners. In one piece of research into English as the world’s corporate language, a British expat in Scandinavia recounted: “When I started [in Denmark] I spoke I guess as I normally had done and wrote as I normally had done and people weren’t getting me, they weren’t understanding.”
Indeed, while her Danish colleagues were increasingly used to working in English with others from the wider international community, it was the native varieties that caused problems. Used to working with English speakers from all over Europe, a Spanish student in Denmark remarked to another researcher: “Now it’s more difficult for me to understand the real English.”
What is more, this “real English”—which dizzyingly encompasses the whole range of dialects from Liverpool in England, to Wellington in New Zealand, via Johannesburg in South Africa, and Memphis in the US—is only the start of the problem.
When an American manager in Japan cannot understand why his Japanese staff will not give him the “ballpark figure” he has demanded, this breakdown in communication can lead to a real disintegration in workplace relations. And the underlying feelings of mistrust are mutual. The inability of the traveling native English speaker to refrain from homeland idiosyncrasies, subtextual dexterity, and cultural in-jokes has been found to result in resentment and suspicion.
International colleagues resent the lack of effort made on the part of the monoglot English speaker. They experience a loss of professional stature when having to speak with those who are not only comfortable with the language, but who appear to vaunt the effortlessness with which they bend the language to their will. And they suspect that the offending expat uses this virtuosity to gain unfair advantage in the workplace.
On a recent trip to Japan, a manager in an international consortium recounted to me how he and other international partners would hold back from actively contributing to meetings where his British and American partners dominated the floor. Following the meeting they would seek one another out to discuss matters between themselves in private.
This points to a very real danger that native English speakers, especially those who never mastered another language, risk missing out on business opportunities—whether in the form of contracts, idea development, job opportunities, and the like—due to a basic lack of understanding of what international English communication entails.
The travel writer Pico Iyer once described a social visit of a British friend to his partner in Kyoto. He remarked: “The three of us embarked on an utterly unnecessary conversation in which I deftly translated from English into English and then back again.”
When it is much easier to work with others who are on the same page as you, the intransigent native English speaker may actually be given a wide berth by their counterparts abroad.
This should be a wake-up call for politicians like Cameron and Trump. Rather than laying the problems of English at the door of those who speak it as a second, third, or fourth language, it would be wise for mother-tongue nations to do more to prepare their professional classes for the language challenges they face abroad.
We might take heed of Robert Burns, if you can understand him, when he wrote: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!”
Reflecting on the difficulties others may have in understanding our English may well be a good start to becoming a better member of the international community. And a more attractive business partner too.