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Small Business Digest


8 Skills For Closing The Communications Gap When English Is Not The First Language

A little known but critical element in today's multi-cultural company environment is the fact that employees whose English is a second language often suppress their contributions for fear of being misunderstood or laughed at. 

More importantly, when professionals suppress innovative ideas to avoid linguistic embarrassment, or leave meetings unsure of the details discussed, their companies are losing out on the "diversity competitive edge." 

Accent and language differences can become barriers to communication, relationships falter, alignment of vision suffers, and individual career opportunities fade. 

"Even when English is spoken fluently, there can be comprehension and confidence issues," says speech and presentation expert, Eileen N. Sinett, president of Comprehensive Communication Services, Plainsboro, NJ. 

"Speakers measure their second language against their native one, often translating the discrepancy as inadequacy.  "Closeted," second-culture low self-esteem, is one response that prevents high potential minority professionals from taking calculated risks and assuming challenging opportunities," she argues.

At the same time, Sinett believes other company employees must become active listeners and try harder to understand their colleagues whose first language is not English or American English.

Sinett advocates that though language and cultural mastery take time, there are many speaking and listening best practices that can help close this communication gap.  The following are best bet strategies for more successfully, getting a message across and understanding speech differences.

Sinett offers these suggestions for "Speakers Whose First Language is Other than English:"

1. People should use their voice fully. Being heard precedes being understood.  It's better to make a pronunciation mistake than not speak at all.   The American business culture respects contribution.  Speaking up and audibly is essential.  (Do not assume it is the accent that is the problem; it might very well be the softness of the voice!)

2. Maximize eye contact to anchor listener attention.  Eye contact is felt as much as it is seen.  When people's eyes and words are aligned, they have a greater chance to influence their listeners.  The American culture expects and supports direct eye contact.  It communicates self-confidence:  "You are important to me, and I want your listening attention."  Make a practice of speaking eye to eye, especially in groups, one person at a time.

3. Listen without interruption and then clarify what was heard.  Being sure to understand what was said is a skill for communicators of any background.  People should not assume they have understand a speaker unless they feed back the message and receive confirmation.  Many times, the speaker will add details that enhance comprehension after paraphasing is done. 

4. Collect to Correct!  Begin a Business English language notebook.  Jot down questions, unfamiliar vocabulary, pronunciations, idiomatic expressions, and grammatical subtleties.  Ask a colleague to assist by listening and responding to questions.  Five minutes once a week can catapult a linguistic I.Q. and most colleagues will be more than willing to provide this support.  Investigate internal coaching and training opportunities within the company.

For American-born Listeners with English as Their Only Language:

1.  Listen fully.  People should avoid judging the speaker's pronunciation or their own ability to understand speech differences.  Make it the intention to give 100% listening attention.   When listening to accented speech over the telephone, people should try closing their eyes.  For many, this "listening without looking" supports and strengthens listening acumen.

2. Be respectful when asking a speaker to repeat him or herself; own part of the problem.  Communication is a 2-way process.  All listeners do not have the same difficulty listening to accents.   Better to say, "I didn't understand you, Could you repeat that for me please?" than, "What?  Say that again, Speak clearly, Speak up, Speak slowly, etc."

3. Use alternative communication methods to gain understanding.  If people have asked a speaker to repeat more than twice and they still don't understand him/her, try other communication methods.  Politely asking a colleague to spell, draw or show what they mean is an appropriate intervention when verbal expression fails.  Remember: communication is the ultimate goal and is far more important than "perfect" grammar, accent, and vocabulary. 

4. Model excellence in communication and presentation.  Do not interrupt, monopolize, gossip, "wing-it," "side-bar", answer emails during meetings and half-listen.  Dress appropriately, manage conflict, project a positive attitude and articulate messages clearly and authentically.  Set a strong communication example!

For more details and to contact Sinett go to

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