Clare and Rodrigo are employees at a multinational corporation. Currently, both living as expatriates in Singapore, Clare is French and Rodrigo is Brazilian. It is mid-afternoon and Rodrigo passes Clare’s desk and asks if she would like to attend the big reunion this evening.
Being French, Clare assumes that this is some kind of serious business meeting – the French for the word ‘meeting’ is ‘réunion’. However, when she arrives at the destination it turns out that it is simply a gathering of current and former employees of the company. Claire is left feeling embarrassed – she had expected this to be a serious business meeting and turned up in her corporate clothing and is carrying a laptop with her.
This story typifies the kinds of problem that can occur when using international business English. About 1.75 billion people around the world speak English according to the Harvard Business Review. The language is used in major corporations, multilateral organisations, governments, academia, and NGOs. As a kind of lingua franca, it enables the communication between people who don’t have a common native language.
However, relying on business English comes with many risks. While the example of Rodrigo and Clare’s misunderstanding is little more than an inconvenience, miscommunications between people who are both using a second language can have serious impact on a business’s productivity, morale and output.
Related: 9 ways to improve communication in international business
The risks of relying on international business English
Business English is incredibly common worldwide. Indeed, some international companies like Airbus, Nokia, and SAP have mandated English as the corporate language. The same can be said for several international charities as well as multilateral organisations.
Usually, the people who work at these organisations will be well educated and often have a good standard of English that they can get by on. However, there are significant drawbacks that come with relying too heavily on international English.
Miscommunications and misunderstandings
The biggest risk of relying on international English – especially in negotiations, technical meetings or sensitive discussions – is that people can come away with a very different understanding of what happened.
Whether it is quantities, responsibilities, priorities or anything else, discussing important topics in a second language can lead to serious confusion. As a consequence, people may not do what their colleagues expect, believe their customers want different things to what they said, or even offend their partners.
Embarrassment and discomfort
Another significant drawback of relying on international English is that people who are less proficient in the language feel embarrassed and uncomfortable when they have to speak it. Fear of making mistakes or looking foolish can mean that people don’t contribute in meetings and discussions where they may have valuable things to say. This makes meetings less productive and reduces the organisation’s ability to act.
Culture loss and resentment
Our languages are a huge part of our identity; they are the way we express ourselves, our thoughts and feelings. Therefore, if individuals are forced to speak a foreign language in the workplace (especially when they are in their own country) some may feel that their culture and a big part of their identity is being ignored or discounted. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to resentment or refusal to participate.
A more sophisticated approach than business English
There is little doubt that business English will continue to be used in many companies and international organisations as a means to communicate. However, when it comes to important meetings or discussions about technical topics and sensitive issues, a more sophisticated approach is needed.
People need to be able to talk in their own language to fully express themselves – and the people they are speaking to should be able to hear what their colleagues are saying in their own language too.
Until relatively recently, however, the only way to do this would be to use an interpreter – something that would be impractical in most situations. But technology is making it much easier for people to communicate in multiple languages.
With the Speechly app, it is possible to hold a one-to-one conversation between the speakers of 45 global languages. This means that a native French, Gujarati, Hebrew or Portuguese speaker can converse in their own language with native Chinese, Swahili, Polish or Russian speakers – and much more besides.
Rather than relying on business English and all the potential mistakes this can introduce, Speechly makes communication clear, efficient and smooth for workers in multinational settings. Find out more about Speechly here.