Afraid to Speak English: The Real Cost to Your Business

Afraid to Speak English: The Real Cost to Your Company

According to linguists, our language is intimately connected with our identity and sense of self-esteem. As children, mastery of language is an essential survival skill. Effective communication gets us what we want and need, enables us to be social, and makes us feel competent. Our mastery of our mother tongue tells us we are smart and part of our group. And of course, other people judge us by our language ability–beginning early with our proud parents. “Did you hear that? She called you ‘papa!’ “ And later, (if we are lucky) the positive reinforcement continues with high school teachers who say, “Great work on that essay!” We get the message: Language competency = smart. Language incompetency = dumb.

When we learn a second language (an L2), we are immediately aware of our deficiencies. We know that we are, in fact, inadequate. Suddenly, competent adults are challenged to perform, and come up short. This experience can be devastating for business people who pride themselves on their communication abilities. They know that these abilities are a cornerstone of their success. No amount of product knowledge, technical expertise or passion can compensate for language disability.

Many professionals will not ask for help with this deficiency. In fact, they may engage in avoidance behavior – trying to hide their “problem” by avoiding situations that require their second language. When such situations cannot be avoided, they fall silent and let others carry the discussion. Stress and anxiety are the obvious results for the professional. Lost time, revenue, and “edge” are the obvious losses for the company.

There are no figures to equate this problem with money, but we can assume that second language challenges cost businesses real money. Consider the challenges of:

• Meetings
• Negotiations
• Social business interactions
• Fielding questions and objections
• Presentation skills
• Agreeing and disagreeing
• Explaining
• Listening
• Asking pointed questions
• Telephone conversations

While these situations are mastered by many professionals in their mother tongue, these same professionals become disabled when they must perform in their L2.

Individuals who are willing to admit their disability say things like this.
Regarding speaking English–
• I can’t find the English words.
• I always think in my mother tongue.
• I have to think too long before I speak.
• I am too agreeable in English: I say yes because it is too hard to say no.
• I cannot be persuasive in English.
• I let other people take calls from English speakers.
• I dread and/or avoid meetings with English speakers.
• I cannot be a leader in English.

Regarding writing English–
• My colleagues always edit my English emails.
• It takes me too long to write English emails.
• I get negative feedback about my English writing.
• I don’t know common English phrases for opening and closing emails.
• I don’t know how to sound more/less formal.
• I need to be more polite in my emails.

If you get these signals from your colleagues, you know that L2 problems are affecting your workers. In that case, you can be sure of two things. Workers with these issues are under stress and not performing at optimal levels. Needless to say, that means corporate profitability is suffering, and completive edge is lost.

But remember that many professionals will hide these deficiencies from bosses and colleagues, perhaps even from themselves.

By Brenda de Jong-Pauley, MA, May 2019
Brenda holds a master’s degree in psychology and is the founder/director of The English Center in Amsterdam.

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