5 Team members you didn’t realise need language lessons (and how you can help)

Poor English is reducing your business’s productivity. There, I said it. Don’t believe me? Here are five employees who didn’t grow up speaking English, and whose language skills are now holding their careers — as well as your team or business—back.

1. The person who uses “weird” turns of phrase.

You might giggle when your Indian dev team lead writes “Please do the needful” in an email. But a client recently told me about the time he asked a team to “please consider” an action — a phrase that, in India, would be taken as an instruction to complete the action. Instead, the Australian team he’d emailed considered — and then rejected — his “idea”.

It’s not just India. Countries where English is the national, but not native, language may use dialectical English that can be confusing at best, and costly otherwise. Participants in my business English workshops are always quick to point out the differences they’ve noticed, but they’re amazed when I explore even a small range of local business idioms (kickoff meeting, across the board, in the loop, etc.) with them. Because — you guessed it! — Australian English is a dialect all its own.

2. The person who never seems to get it until you explain in writing.

In a computer-centric office environment, you may not need great listening skills to do well. Until, that is, your role evolves, or you get a new job, and you need to attend team meetings, receive spoken instructions, and so on.

If someone in your business routinely fails to understand what’s been said — perhaps they never seem to act on tasks you’ve discussed, or perhaps they ask you to clarify instructions multiple times, finally in writing — then work takes longer to do. It’s that simple. Of course, the chances of mishearing and taking an unhelpful or unproductive action are equally high.

Australia’s multiplicity of accents, thanks to our multicultural history and workforce, mean non-native speakers need tactics to help them comprehend accents vastly different from their own. A little training can go a long way in this case.

3. The presenter who fumbles through multiparty calls.

Last year I coached a non-native speaker whose work as Project Lead in a global tech company required her to give Skype presentations to hundreds of people around the world. She also had dyslexia. Her English was strong but her confidence was not — and while her boss could see this, she couldn’t seem to reassure my client that she was doing well. Her presentations suffered with her confidence.

But with a couple of months of weekly targeted language training, she was regularly getting compliments from her superiors and call attendees on her presentation style. All we worked on was English, but through that, she saw that she had the power to master new language, to do so in a business context, and to have fun with, rather than fear, English.

4. The new recruit you’re scared to have emailing clients.

Depending on our field, some of us get through years at work without ever having to develop strong writing skills. We’ve all worked with (or been!) people like that. The problem arises when these people hit client-facing roles and need to correspond with high-value stakeholders.

Here “correspond” is code for “get things done with”, because writing is never just about writing. It’s about achieving business goals. And as we know, it’s all too easy to unintentionally put a foot wrong when you’re writing electronic communications.

There’s a lot that goes into writing: grammar, idiomatic expressions, industry-specific terminology (a.k.a. jargon), and social norms as simple as when to use a salutation, and which salutations and signoffs to use in which contexts. If you’ve ever struggled with an email or other digital communication, like a slide deck for example, you’ll have an inkling of what a minefield these tasks can be for non-native speakers. And when it comes to communicating direct with clients, the potential impact for your business can be enormous.

Focused digital writing training is an easy solution — workshops on this topic are usually a hit, since they can also help boost the skills of native speakers who aren’t great writers yet.

5. The person doing further study — and struggling.

In business, we tend to focus on professional development as being discipline-specific. Want to go to a conference in your field? Great, we’ll pay for it. Eager to tackle a new qualification out of hours? We’ll give you time off to study and take exams. Yet we rarely consider the impact that English skills can have on the value that person derives from those activities — and the value they subsequently return to our business.

As a student of mine discovered when undertaking further study, the language used in textbooks, lectures and other materials was a step up on what she’d been using day-to-day. After all, nine times out of ten, learning new concepts requires vocabulary acquisition, and if your grammar’s not strong to begin with, adding new words to your lexicon can be a nightmare.

I have plenty of students who know what they’re saying, but choose the wrong word form (e.g. the noun “technological development” when they want the verb construction “developing technology”). If they do this often enough their writing and speaking can become extremely confused, and confusing. Completing — let alone passing — assessments in this context can be extremely challenging.

To take real value from learning and apply it in a work setting, your staff need facility with what is often highly specialised language. Regular English support can be the key to helping your team members make the most of study and apply newly learned skills to their full advantage in your business.

Now you know, what can you do?

If you can identify people who fit these categories in your business, you need to take action.

  1. Consider adding language support or training to your professional development budgets.
  2. At review time, address language issues with relevant team members and offer them pathways to gain skills.
  3. Team up with a good local language coach who has skills in adult learning in business settings, so that you have a good go-to person to support your business goals with targeted language programs.

And if you yourself fall into one of these groups, maybe speak to your manager or team lead about building the kind of language training you need into your professional development plan.