The English Language Advantage

“You Americans, you have no idea how easy you have it! You get to use your native language at work every day.”

This comment took me by surprise, coming from a Scandinavian co-worker with, to my ears, excellent English-language skills. I tried to argue, and he argued right back, explaining that while he had studied English in school and used it at work for many years, he still struggled sometimes to keep up in conversations with Americans, especially in meetings when we were all talking quickly and interrupting each other, or speaking in long, run-on sentences like this one.

Since that day I’ve come to appreciate the truth in his words. I’ve heard the same complaint from so many other colleagues and students, and observed the very real toll that speaking and trying to understand English all day can take. Frustration, fatigue and embarrassment are common experiences, sometimes resulting in costly business mistakes or damaged work relationships.

When given the opportunity, I try to help other native English speakers understand the advantage their language skills give them in the workplace. I encourage them to consider ways that they could adjust their approaches and expectations when communicating with colleagues who have English as their second, third or even fourth language.

Over the years a simple list of practical tips has emerged from our conversations:

  • Be aware of potential communication gaps. Pay attention!
  • Slow down. Speak at a slower pace and pause more often to listen.
  • Use common English words. Simplify your explanations.
  • Be patient, especially when people repeat themselves or ask you to repeat.
  • Invite and encourage people to speak up. Pause and wait for a reply. Don’t interrupt!
  • Be aware of your use of slang, acronyms and pop culture references. Don’t expect that they will be easily understood. Use them sparingly or be willing to explain/teach what they mean.
  • Provide meeting agendas and expectations in advance. Follow the agenda, create opportunities for each person to take turns speaking and summarize key points in writing.
  • Follow up one-on-one after group meetings to ¬†check for understanding,¬†answer questions and offer further explanations.

These are probably good suggestions for anyone with a desire to communicate effectively at work. They’re especially relevant for people with the advantage, often unacknowledged or even outside of our awareness, of being able to use our native language all day long.




  1. These are all really good points! I think it’s also important to be observant–check for both verbal AND nonverbal understanding in communication because sometimes people don’t want to admit they didn’t “get it.”

  2. Ann Marie Lei says:

    Great points, too. Do you have specific suggestions to help us actually notice nonverbal cues, for those of us who are more accustomed to simply paying attention to the words? I would love to hear them. THanks!

  3. Soo true, Ann Marie. Language fluency and communication styles can really be power and control issues, even when the non-native speakers are fluent. I have a group of friends here in Mexico who all talk so fast, interrupting each other so fluidly and quickly (in Spanish), that sometimes I go home exhausted from trying to keep up/get a word in rather than rejuvenated from a “fun” evening with friends. I need to import an interculturalist friend to “train” them for me, lol.

  4. Very helpful Ann Marie. Living in a foreign country myself, if I may offer a few additions:
    1) Smiling and nodding (for encouragement) also helps the non-native speaker to build confidence. Some speakers (and I realize I am now one of them, as are most Japanese) are reluctant to try to speak for fear of making a mistake – there’s a right or wrong in speaking a foreign language, no in between. I always admire Americans for their ability to be extroverted and “play” with the language vs. fear losing face.
    2) try to keep hand gestures to a minimum (if it doesn’t help with comprehension). I noticed that some people end up paying more attention to your hand movements, following them with their eyes. Sensory overload and distracting at times for a non-native!
    3) In addition to slang and pop culture references, I’ll even go as far as to add corporate “buzz words.” You’d think through shared corporate culture, there exists a common vocabulary, but I learned from firsthand experience that this may not be the case. In fact, the non-native speaker may actually look up the words in the dictionary and understand and attribute a different (albeit correct) meaning to the same words but in fact may miss the mark as it’s being used in the “shared” context of the company.
    As to your other points, I’ve noticed that my brain tries to catch up when I’m processing a second language. I listen for words I can recognize and then there seems to always be a few seconds’ (sometime minutes’) lag in getting to comprehension. That’s why your points of slowing down and pausing is great!
    Now, can you please offer the same advice in Chinese so I can share it with the native speakers here? That would help me tremendously!!

  5. Ann Marie Lei says:

    Thanks for the thorough reply and great suggestions. I wish I could help with the Chinese language version! Take care, Ann Marie

  6. Ann Marie,
    I think it’s always good to check for understanding by looking at someone’s face. You can sometimes tell by a “blank stare” if the person didn’t get it. Looking away, or seeming distracted is also a clue. Also, when you’re giving a talk that might involve taking notes, if the person isn’t taking notes, that might be a clue they aren’t understanding. These are just some examples–I’m sure others have ideas too.

  7. Great suggestions, Minneapolismama. Thanks!

Speak Your Mind