English as a Global Language – 7 Struggles and Solutions

A Business Tale


By: Nita Korsten and Kathy Czako

Once upon a time… Mrs. Snow, the CEO of an international company, led her quarterly sales meeting on the 46th floor of a giant glass and concrete skyscraper in a country far, far away. Her seven devoted staff members surrounded Mrs. Snow. They had gathered from various countries from all over the world. Normally, Sammy, Suzy, Hanny and Gregory spoke English; Gretchen spoke German, Jérémy French, and Don Chinese. But because they needed a common language, they had decided, a long time ago, to speak English at work.

Mrs. Snow had asked the participants to bring some of their most talented colleagues to the meeting. “This will be great”, she thought. “All this knowledge and experience in one room!” Except something was wrong. People didn’t seem to be aware of the important issues facing the company, team members did not always seem to understand each other, and some added little or nothing during discussions!

Luckily Suzy noticed what was happening. As a child of a Hungarian mother and an English father, she understood the impact of cultural differences and the reality unknown to Mrs. Snow. Suzy pulled her boss aside and said: “Did you know that only 7 % of the world’s population speaks English as a first language. That means that in international business settings, many people need to adapt, which is not always easy!”  Suzy took a marker and wrote down the seven struggles for non-native speakers on a flip-chart:  

Understanding the 7 Struggles

Non-native colleagues might:

1.    have difficulty understanding various accents or dialects;

2.    be unfamiliar with slang and certain expressions;

3.    need more time to process a question and prepare an answer, thus a reaction might not be as prompt as one would expect;

4.    feel insecure about speaking up in public;

5.    feel frustrated because they feel they have more to say on the subject than they are able to express;

6.    miss or misunderstand subtle or indirect expressions;

7.    may feel unqualified to participate in a discussion or meeting.

Mrs. Snow was pleased with Suzy’s clarification. This sounded like a problem with an extremely easy solution! The non-native English speakers could join an English class! Suzy said that would be a good start, and added: “We as native speakers have to take action as well – after all, it takes two to tango.”

For the next quarterly meeting, Mrs. Snow hired a facilitator who used a simulation game to replicate the communication patterns in their team. Through this simulation, they truly experienced each other’s struggles and together they came up with a smart list of seven solutions:

7 Solutions to help native speakers improve communication

1.    slow down or limit the amount of difficult words and jargon;

2.    do not over-use expressions, especially those that may not translate well into another language;

3.    take your time before jumping into a discussion, give space to others;

4.    encourage colleagues before a meeting starts, emphasize that you want to hear their opinion on a certain subject;

5.    take note of non-verbal communication and remember not to misunderstand English skills for knowledge of a certain subject nor for intelligence;

6.    make sure your message is being understood, repeat the message by paraphrasing and try to keep it simple!

7.    remember that business etiquette varies by culture; maybe your colleagues feel they are not entitled to voice their opinion; or in their own language they use a different speech pattern!

This list became their code of conduct for their meetings. All team members became aware of their potential and how to improve communication and collaboration, and they all lived happily ever after!

Do you recognize some of the struggles mentioned above? Do you feel your team could use some support in identifying and resolving communication issues around language and cultures? Do not hesitate to contact Nita and Kathy. They are experienced in helping teams find solutions to improve their communication and cultural fluency.