Borderless English, for international conversations
Speaking everybody’s second language…
While English has become the world’s international lingua franca, it is neither standard UK or USA fare. Frankly, should Brazilian colleagues be expected to speak baseball (“ballpark figure” “touch base with you”)? Should Arab clients have to learn about canoeing to translate “we’re up a creek, without a paddle?”
Many English managers come from a meeting frustrated that Germans and French seem to have communicated quite well in this third language but that they’ve both listened to their British colleagues without understanding a word! Indeed, managers from Singapore to Sao Paolo have adopted a form of English that can be called “Borderless English”.
To speak this, you need to begin by understanding what is difficult for non-native speakers to understand when native speakers speak together.
Stay clear of phrasal verbs
For example, consider the following sentence: “Did you get the report? I didn’t get the figures! Get them confirmed! Got it? Get to it!”
Phrasal verbs, that is to say verbs and prepositions together that form a new verb, are among the most difficult grammatical points for a non-native speaker to understand. They may not understand, “I look up to John”. The Borderless English, “I respect John” has a better chance of being understood. “Let’s wrap up the meeting” is better expressed as “We should finish the meeting”.
Ditch the idiomatic expressions
Speaking Borderless English also involves limiting the use of idiomatic expressions. “Out of the blue, he mentioned…” is difficult to interpret. “Suddenly he said…” is borderless.
Cut back on cultural references
References to current political situations, television shows, cultural events or historical facts can be lost in translation. A “sticky wicket” is not borderless form of speech! Opening a speech with reference to a Jersey Shore episode or a recent politician’s gaffe is unlikely to generate a smile.
Beware of Faux amis (one word=more than one meaning)
By speaking Borderless English, you can show your sensitivity to your counterparts’ difficulties and express your willingness to share the efforts in communicating. Therefore, when your French colleague brags about a delivery’s delay of three weeks, you’ll think twice before criticizing the “lateness”. You’ll recognise the strangeness and ask for clarification of what he meant… and discover the “faux amis ” (“false friends”) –words that sound the same but have a different meaning. Indeed, in French, “délai” is “lead time” and not “lateness”!
And then you’ll be prepared for different interpretations of a common word. When the French say the prices are “ridiculous”, they most often mean that the prices are “very very low”… as opposed to our English meaning of “very very high”!
Focus on mutual understanding!
“Borderless English” is as much an attitude as an approach to the language. It communicates your awareness of the struggles people have in speaking English and your respect for their efforts. It forces you to avoid judging people on the basis of their foreign accents and listening more carefully to the content of their speech. There is no single, no-fail solution to overcome language difficulties yet acknowledging them is already a major step to finding a shared form of communication.
In a nutshell:
- Don’t underestimate your colleagues because they have an accent. Remind yourself of the number of languages you master and how difficult it is to attain a level of fluency.
- Do not hesitate to ask someone to rephrase a sentence or illustrate a comment if you are unsure of what they meant to say.
- Accept that some words may be used in English with a meaning from another language. These “false friends” are too numerous to list yet pepper every conversation. For example, when a French person “demands” information, they may just be “demander ” or asking for it politely. Having to think and speak at the same time is difficult and it is quite natural to confuse some of the meanings.
- Think about expressing acronyms in words and explaining technical language. These often present challenges when introduced in another language. One French manager talked about “jeevees” for a whole day’s meeting until his English colleague asked him what a “jeevee” was… the French manager was talking about “JV” or “joint venture”, using the abbreviation to show off his fluency in the language. Quite naturally he left the meeting wondering just how much his English colleague had really understood!
- Accept that your colleagues may feel tired towards the end of a meeting. As you adopt Borderless English yourself, you will see that thinking about the language you use is exhausting!
- Choose simpler and more direct forms of speech. You may have to sacrifice style to ensure comprehension. As you get to know your counterparts, you will be able to grow your vocabulary and introduce more idiomatic language as you go.
- Enjoy the exchange! As you get closer to your international colleagues and learn more about their language and interpretation, you will see that you will take a closer look at your own words and way of communicating. It’s enriching.
Read our Borderless English Booklet.