English aliens — For international travellers

Different countries use the language of English in different ways. This may seem like a blindingly obvious statement but it is easier to say than to fully comprehend what this means in practice.

During my first trip to the East Coast of America, after I had got over the jet lag, I started feeling ill at ease. I did speak the same language but my words, my sentences, my grammar were alien to those around me. I truly felt like I was speaking a “foreign” language even though I was communicating in English to English speakers.

(I have subsequently learnt that many first timers from England to the East Coast, also experience this head on clash between normal everyday self-deprecation vs self-aggrandizement as it is expressed in conversation a bit of a shock. (My second trip was easier!)

If native English speakers can feel ill at ease speaking English on the opposite end of the planet, how must non-native English speakers feel? International non-native English speakers often obsess on mastering the technical components of a language, without realizing that this is not the only component that they need to master to ensure clear communication.

Different languages do not merely utilize a different set of sounds, signs and word order, they embody a different way of being in the world. (There is a lot of interesting science on how the brain is wired differently in different countries elsewhere).

Recently when working with a South American student who is now living in Switzerland and highlighting the importance of clarity, rhythm, stress as well as word choice when communicating I realized that I had failed to convey a fundamental point.

The complex give and take that occurs in any real conversation can only occur from a standpoint of mutual respect, knowledge and understanding. A respect not only of another person’s point of view but also of how another person may choose to express that point of view.

Double Dutch? An example I used recently, which may illustrate this point would be to consider how different nationalities communicate a certain fact. For a moment, consider how four different people, from four different mother tongues, may tell you that it is raining outside — “Ah,” you say, “it all depends on their personality, their mood …etc.” The English person may choose to note that it is raining “again”, a Spanish person may state that it is “good for the land.” etc.

I am not a nationalist, at all, but I am making this point to illustrate the differences on how we communicate simple facts, as well as complex ideas, depending on where we are based.

A language does not just communicate a fact but it is also an embodiment of a philosophy. It may be a gross oversimplification but if we compare for example an English person’s tendency to complain with an American tendency to focus on the positive side of everything, these are not only 2 different uses of the English language in communication but also accepted ways of being, an accepted “normal” mode of communication.

Why am I laboring this point?

In the fast information culture we live in it has become too easy to categorize, define and dismiss everything that is uncomfortable, disturbing or unpalatable and this results in each of us building, day by day a monoculture — not just a “me” culture — but a monoculture where we refuse to entertain everything and anything that is “alien”. This not only ensures that we never grow intellectually or embrace new or different ideas, but also hardens stereotypes as there is no “bridge of language” over which new ideas can travel.

E.g. How many people know that many Latin cultures (Spanish, Italian, French) feel that English, as spoken in England, is a brutal language as illustrated in their idioms and everyday expressions? Or that many choose to confuse the directness of German and North American speech as rude, rather than straightforward, thereby equating obfuscation with politeness?

In this respect international business leaders are unknowingly at the forefront of global communication expertise. They must communicate, and learn how to communicate clearly with an awareness of cultural differences if they are to succeed, and most motivated to find a way of dong this effectively.

How can we effectively communicate internationally?

Does this necessitate a compromise of “self” in some way? Must we bend and contort ourselves to fit in order to reach the other side? Or is it necessary to jump to the other side of the chasm between continents in order to communicate clearly? Or can we meet halfway on the bridge — the common language we all struggle to speak, whether that be English, Spanish or Chinese and compromise?

An easy answer

Communication is just like any other skill — we get better with practice. If your goal is to communicate better internationally then it will help if you realize you are communicating interculturally.

It is not enough to say I have read a French novel, in translation, so I know more about French culture, or I have been watching American movies all my life so I will be able to communicate well with my American colleagues — (Hollywood is not America — duh!) However, watching movies and reading literary novels from the country you intend to visit/relocate will definitely broaden your perspective and deepen your understanding of the culture.

Paradoxically the answer can be to take action locally!

Wherever we live in the world there are people from different cultures, nationalities and social backgrounds all around us — to communicate across difference we must perhaps, first discover how to embrace difference.

Can we negate or overcome a lifetime of conditioning over what is “normal” overnight? Of course not, but by realizing that is not only achievable but necessary if we wish to communicate globally, we have already taken a significant first step.

Lastly, but certainly not least, genuine intentions are readable wherever we are in the world, and if your utterances reflect what you believe then clear and successful communication may well be easier than you think!

July 2019

Musings of a long time English teacher & Coach who works with European business leaders, and who has taught and lived in China, & the Middle East. Parm Kaur.

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