Communication is key for leading companies and when dealing across cultures it becomes even more important to ensure you are understood. If you are not, costly mistakes will be made, potentially costing you relationships, resources and business success.
About 375 million people worldwide speak English as their first language. But English is spoken in countless different ways around the world, and Australian English can be hard to understand for people who speak English as a second language, who typically learn British or American English.
Have you ever struggled to understand someone who is speaking English with a non-Australian accent? Now imagine if English was your second language and you had to understand an Australian talking to you. Australians generally use idioms and slang more frequently than people in other countries and for someone who has not grown up in the Australian culture, it would be hard to understand.
For example, “How are you going to die?” This was the question a Lao executive heard from his Australian counterpart upon his first introduction. What do you say to such a question? Yet the Australian was merely enquiring, “How are you today?” in his thick Australian accent.
Responsibility for clear communication
When in an intercultural situation, native English speakers often believe the non-native speaker contributes the most to any potential misunderstanding. While this can be true, native speakers also have a responsibility to speak as clearly and unambiguously as possible. This is not as easy as you think.
When businesspeople from across Asia meet to conduct business, their common language is often English. A frequent experience is these non-native speakers of English are well able to understand each other. Their moderate pace, clear pronunciation and more formal vocabulary enable all participants to follow and contribute to the conversation.
Now enter a fast-speaking, consonant-clipping, idiom-using native English speaker, and the level of understanding can drop significantly. If the speaker has an Australian accent, comprehension can plummet even further.
Speaking global English is a skill that applies to native speakers more than those who speak English as a second language. It requires the awareness that, as a native speaker, you have a level of comfort and familiarity with English which can cause you to speak it in a way that is challenging for a non-native speaker to understand.
If English is your only language, you could also be missing the perspective of how much effort is required to understand, and make yourself understood in, another language.
In many Asian cultures, people will rarely tell you if they cannot understand you, and their answer to your well-intentioned closed question “Do you understand?” will almost always be “Yes”.
To build your knowledge of how you speak English, ask for feedback from trusted colleagues who speak English as a second language, and have not yet succumbed to our unique Australian style, in the way they speak English.
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10 tips for speaking global English
- Slow down and speak at a normal volume
- Pronounce words clearly, including the consonants at the end
- Avoid idioms, slang, banter, sarcasm and culturally-specific humour
- Avoid double negatives (I don’t disagree with you) and negative questions (That’s not right, is it?)
- Avoid contractions (I’ve, we’ll, isn’t, couldn’t) – use the full form
- Use short sentences and questions, containing one main idea
- Avoid high rising tone – it makes every statement sound like a question
- If you have a strong accent, work on neutralising it
- Use open contextual questions to check for understanding
- Adjust your style according to the listener’s proficiency.
To be effective across cultures, we need to raise our awareness of the cultural context, define our cultural perspective and position, build our knowledge and understanding, and develop our capability to perform.
These essential stages also apply to the way we speak our own language, and shift the focus from the other person’s perceived deficiency in English, to a shared responsibility and capability to communicate more effectively.
Tamerlaine Beasley is the managing director of Beasley Intercultural, the largest provider of Asia-capable workforce solutions in Australia. It provides clients with the knowledge and capability to navigate the complexities of diverse and global workplaces to get the results they need. www.intercultural.com.au