Dual meaning words including onboarding, compensation, resignation, delegate, and phrases ‘in a nutshell’ and ‘go the extra mile’ cause most problems
Walk into almost any service business in a UK city today and at least half of the people employed do not have English as their first language. Coffee shops are the obvious example, but also gyms, restaurants, shops, banks, cinemas, theatres – the list is endless – not to mention all the service workers based in call centres.
In a 2012 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, nearly 70 per cent of executives said their workforce will need to master English to realise corporate expansion plans, and a quarter said that more than 50 per cent of their total workforce will need English ability. That was seven years ago and since then, English has become even more important and now makes a significant contribution to sustainable global development. According to Mark Robson, Director of English and Exams at the British Council, “It is the UK’s greatest gift to the world and the world’s common language.”
The thing is, that although most of the people we encounter in service situations do speak pretty good functional English, they often don’t get all the linguistic nuances. Some people might think they don’t need to. Does it really matter? I think yes.
I had a situation recently where the English language mistakes made by an otherwise very friendly barista that had served me regularly and with whom I had built quite a rapport over some time, caused offence. She got my name confused with “Stefan” and insisted on pronouncing it wrongly, even though I explained many times that the ‘ph’ is sounded as a ‘v’ and that it’s an easy mistake to make. She was so persistent in refusing to acknowledge this slip up that I now go to an alternative coffee shop.
If her English language and cultural knowledge (it’s not the done thing to overly labour a point) was a bit better, that wouldn’t have happened. That’s a non-critical example, although the coffee shop concerned have lost my business. In other industries, aviation being a good example, miscommunication can be fatal. According to the author of Aviation English, Dr Estival has estimated over 1000 deaths in plane crashes have been due to communication failures, often between crews that speak English and crews that don’t.
The number of non-native English speakers now far outnumbers native speakers and is increasingly being adopted as the common company language in many organisations. An increasing number of companies – Nokia, SAP, Heinkeken, Samsung and Renault amongst them – have recognised the long-term advantages to productivity and growth that adopting English as a common company language can have. For people working in the UK, poor English language skills and proficiency is the most common barrier to employment and career progression for non-native speakers. It’s also an issue for native speakers too. YouTube research found that more than half of British adults are not confident with their command of spelling and grammar and English language tutorial videos are seeing a huge surge in popularity. Since April 2017, they have measured a 126% increase in views of English language lesson videos on the site.
That’s the same as our experience, across 7 countries including the UK, our English language courses: Understand Business English, Speak Business English and Write a Business Email are among the most popular with learners. The same trend holds in the UK, where a large proportion of the audience are native speakers.
Our research has also shown that some of the most commonly misunderstood business words and phrases for non-native English speakers are very commonly used HR related terms. Workers have particular issues with terms like ‘onboarding’, ‘compensation’ and ‘resignation’, all of which have multiple meanings.
English is now spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide – that’s one in every four, but in a business context, people who are working in English need more support. By 2020, The British Council estimates that two billion people will be using English. More and more, it is the ‘operating system’ of global conversations and especially so among the economically active. The global ‘language of convenience’, it is also very widely misunderstood, especially in a business context as our research has shown.
Latest posts by Stephen Humphreys (see all)
- How high employer trust levels and e-learning can counter fake news - September 23, 2019
- Top 30 misunderstood business words by non-native English speaking workers - September 20, 2019
- 5 ways to be more assertive - September 16, 2019