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Jeffrey addressing a meeting in Faro, Portugal

10 Things Native English Speakers in International Teams Need to Know

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Like it or not, English is the operational language in a growing number of companies and other organisations, irrespective of their corporate homes. When multinational teams are formed within these organisation, English is the operational language and members of those teams can sometimes struggle to make themselves understood, particularly if their native language is English.

Yes, that's right. Many of the people most challenged by speaking English in multinational teams are the native English speakers. Non-native speakers tend to understand other non-native speakers (even if their mother tongues are not the same) more easily than they understand native English speakers. That's because native English speakers, especially those living in English speaking countries and not used to working with foreigners, have some bad verbal habits. Let's look at some of the most incomprehensible habits.

1. Idioms

By far the biggest challenge native English speakers throw at non-natives is idioms and the British tend to be particularly bad at this. An idiom is a phrase whose figurative meaning is different to the literal meaning of the words comprising the phrase. To "beat about the bush" makes immediate sense to most native English speakers, but sounds ridiculous to everyone else. If you do not understand why, stop and think about the literal meaning of the phrase.

Some idioms are more subtle. If I told a non-native English speaker that I was put out by Johan's motivational speech, would she understand that I was seriously annoyed by it?

Unfortunately, idioms are so central to English, it is hard to remove them from our speech. But, do make an effort to avoid the highly figurative ones like the idioms on this list.

2. Sports Metaphors

Cartoon: French woman confused by sporting metaphorsOne of the biggest crimes committed by Americans is the use of sporting metaphors from football and baseball. Terms like "throwing a curveball" or "getting to first base" do not mean a lot to people outside of America. Baseball may have a world series, but it is not played around the world or even outside of North America. And while men the world over love football, it is not the same football that Americans play. It is what the Americans call soccer, of course. American football is pretty much just played in America, so the term "carrying the ball" means nothing to non-Americans who have not made an effort to learn American sporting metaphors.

Brits used to be nearly as bad with metaphors from cricket, a game incomprehensible to anyone born outside of the UK and its ex-colonies. But as the ex-colonies' teams proved themselves better than the Brits, the latter lost interest in using those metaphors.

3. Measurements

English speaking countries are slowly coming around to the metric system. Australia is mostly there. Canada and the UK are working on it. Only America insists on using the ridiculously complicated imperial system. The rest of the world, meanwhile uses the metric system and has done so for ages. Thus if an American in a multinational meeting describes a new product being three feet wide, many of the team members will either not know what he means or will have to do a quick calculation in their heads to work out that he means a little less than a meter. Of course this is a two way issue. When a Frenchman in a conference call is asked about the weather in Paris and replies that it is 20° and sunny, the American may assume it is below freezing rather than 68° Fahrenheit. Frankly, I reckon it would be best just to raise the next generation of Americans on the metric system and be done with it.

If your company uses one system or the other as a standard, then be sure to convert measurements to the company standard. Otherwise, be attentive of who is in the meeting. If it is a collection that includes Americans and others, include rough conversions to the system you do not ordinarily use. For instance, "the new model can go from 0 to 60 mph − that's just short of 100 kph − in under six seconds."

4. Dates

A long time ago, I worked in a newspaper and magazine publishing house in Bangkok. I don't recall the details, but the situation went something like this. One March, an American advertising agency sent a artwork for an advert with instructions to run it in one of the newspapers on 4/7/91. The sales team acknowledged the sale and put it in the schedule for 4 July. On 8 April, the Americans contacted the sales people, demanding to know why the advert had not run. The sales people, not used to angry Americans, were confused and came to me.

Of course, the Americans meant April 7, 1991. However, the rest of the world reads 4/7/91 as 4 July 1991. I wrote an apologetic and explanatory letter which was faxed (this was 1991, after all) to the Americans who, when they realised the misunderstanding, accepted it with grace. They probably learned a valuable lesson from the experience as well.

The best thing is always to say and write the month in letters in order to avoid this confusion.

5. Numbers

Over the years of living internationally, I have noticed that no matter how fluent people become in other languages, they tend to count and think maths equations in their native language. This means that they have often have to make a mental shift from English to their native language to grasp fully a number, especially a big number, or to add a couple of numbers together. This shift slows their comprehensive slightly.

Moreover, different languages use different notations for numbers. The number 45 is spoken "forty five" in English, but "vijv en viertig" in Dutch, which literally translates to "five and forty". Germans use a similar notation. Thus, if you say "my office is on forty five Main Street," Germans, Flemish, Dutch and others will often initially think 54, before correcting themselves.

The best thing to do here is simply to  pause for an extra second when you share a figure that is important. If you say, "Revenues on the new product were up 21% to £645,000 this year," give the audience a second to absorb those numbers.

Oh, and just to confuse things even more, continental Europeans us full stops (periods) rather than commas in whole numbers, hence they would write 645.000 for six hundred forty five thousand. And, they use a comma for the decimal point. Hence €4,50 is four and a half Euro.

6. Meeting Interruptions

Here's an innocent situation which can cause all kinds of trouble. Imagine you are a part of a team of Americans who are visiting your German subsidiary. You have a meeting with your German counterparts. While explaining an important issue, three of the Germans start talking among themselves. One of them laughs. Then their attention returns to you.

Very possibly, you become annoyed by the lack of respect of the Germans. You may wonder what they were saying and why the one person laughed.

Almost certainly, this is what happened. Hans, the guy who laughed, is not so good in English as some of his colleagues. He does not understand something you said, so he asks his neighbours in the meeting. Hilda explains. Hans, embarrassed by not getting something so simple laughs at himself. The matter cleared up, the Germans return their attention to you.

This happens a lot. Even if your company requires that everyone, at least in certain positions, be fluent in English, some will be more fluent than others. Moreover, people will be fluent in different ways. Some people speak excellently, but write poorly. Others write well, but have trouble understanding spoken English.

A very long time ago, I taught English as a foreign language in Lisbon. I recall one young man in an advanced class who spoke very badly. He had a strong accent and poor grammar. But he could write beautifully and with a coherence better than some native English speakers. I asked him about this and he explained that he was an engineer and that his work required reading English technical texts and preparing documents in English, but his colleagues were all Portuguese. Outside of my class, he never spoke English.

Let's get back to our situation. The biggest problem, when your talk is interrupted by someone asking her colleagues for clarification, is that all of them miss out on what you are saying as they talk among themselves. The best thing you can do in such a situation is to pause for a moment to allow the group to enlighten their colleague. You might even ask if they have a question or if something was unclear.

If you remain upset by the interruption, then simply explain the concept again in German. If you cannot do that, then you have no right to be annoyed with the Germans because one of them needs a little help with English.

7. Abbreviations, Acronyms and Jargon

Actually, you should be careful with abbreviations, acronyms (which are abbreviations, of course) and jargon with any group, even if the group all speak the same language. English is my mother tongue. Moreover, I have lived in both the USA and the UK. Nevertheless, I often get business queries that include abbreviations and jargon that I do not understand. I usually look it up (in the case of an email) or ask for clarification (in the case of a phone call). But as an outsider to your company, I can do that. An insider might be reluctant to ask about an acronym she believes she should know, but does not.

With mixed multinational groups, the situation is worse. Even commonplace abbreviations tend to differ from language to language. Value added tax in English is VAT; the French equivalent is TVA; in Dutch it is BTW; the Germans use MwSt; and the Americans do not have VAT and often believe it is similar to their sales tax, which it is not, really.

The best thing to to is to say the full word rather than use the abbreviation. Of course if you are going to talk about value added tax in a 20 minute presentation on doing business in Europe, you do not want to have to say it out each time, so start by saying "Value added tax − or 'VAT' − is..." Then you can use "VAT". Likewise, in writing, use the full term once and put the abbreviation in brackets. Then use the abbreviation freely.

The same thing with jargon. If you really like internal jargon, clarify it at the beginning. Perhaps you refer to the CEO's office as "the high tower" because it is a suite at the top of your building. Fine. Then explain, it. "Of course we'll need to take your idea to CEO's office or, as we like to call it, 'the high tower', for approval." Doing this not only allows you to use the the jargon, but you've made your colleagues from other offices feel a little more welcome.

8. Question Time

Non-native speakers, especially those who are less used to speaking English regularly, often need a couple seconds longer to formulate replies than do native speakers and highly fluent non-native speakers. So, if you ask a question in a meeting, allow a few extra seconds for people to formulate their questions. Likewise, if you ask a question to an individual, give her a moment to formulate her reply before assuming she does not understand. Asking again or reformulating the question will only interrupt her thinking. At best, that slows her down. At worst, it frustrates her.

9. Learn the Other Language

If you primarily dealing with a bilingual team − for example, your US company has recently merged with a company in Brazil − take Portuguese lessons. Of course it will take you a long time to catch up with your Brazilian colleagues who are fluent in English. Nevertheless, it will do three really great things. Firstly, it will help you understand them better, not only linguistically, but culturally. You can learn a lot about a culture from the language. Secondly, you will impress your Brazilian colleagues. Even if you speak terribly, your making an effort to understand and speak their language shows respect. Thirdly, learning new languages is great for the mind!

10. Speak Slowly Not Loudly

For some strange reason, a lot of native English speakers believe that if a foreigner does not understand them, they should speak more loudly. If you stop and think about it, that makes no sense whatsoever. Instead, speak more slowly and enunciate words more carefully.

Three Most Important Things

If you are regularly working with non-native English speakers, the three most important things you should learn to do are to speak a little more slowly than usual, enunciate more carefully and pause from time to time. This makes it easier for non-native speakers to understand you, gives them time to absorb what you are saying and provides opportunities to ask questions if something is unclear.



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