Do the English really mean what they say?

Holiday season will soon be upon us and yet again thousands of Brits will find themselves trying to remember smatterings of school language lessons in order to converse with the locals. Many will return home vowing to take up a foreign language, but those vows are likely to disappear once the memory of the holiday dims.

As a nation, we are very fortunate in this respect of course. Ours is the established international language of communication, not only in the tourist industry but throughout business, and more often than not there will be an English-savvy local on hand to spare us our holiday blushes.

One of the most common problems for those learning another language is taking the building blocks from the classroom and applying them, practically, in real world situations. Seeing how the language works and how it can be best used in a business scenario is a key element of our specialised Effective Communication in English as an Additional Language course.

I have a Spanish friend who studied English to a very high level and then got a job posting to Liverpool. She spent the first six months being able to understand very little as her conversations were with heavily accented Liverpudlians and not the neutrally toned BBC English speakers she had been exposed to in classroom learning materials.

Regional accents can be the downfall of even the most experienced linguists, but they are only one of the many factors that can throw a non-native speaker off track. An interesting meme doing the internet rounds flags up a list contrasting ‘what the English say’ with ‘what the English mean’.

For example, it’s not bad means it’s good, very interesting sometimes means it’s nonsense, and everything’s fine can mean it’s really not fine at all! It is only through the innate cultural knowledge of your own language that we ‘get it’, and it is easy to see how confusing this could be for a non-native.

Native English business people who have dealings with foreign clients should be aware that non-native speakers, even proficient ones, will often take their words at face value. The advice I have for you is to keep your message plain and your language simple if you want to avoid being misunderstood.

For foreign business people, our courses stress the need for making clear and simple points, focusing on correct pronunciation and having the small talk skills to break the ice with their native English speaking peers. A business person using English as an additional language also needs to stay true to their message so they can be sure that they are effectively communicating.

They also need to watch out for their English counterpart responding I’ll bear that in mind. According to the list, what that really means is I’ve forgotten it already…

Luan de Burgh

July 2016

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of The de Burgh Group – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.