Communicating globally - your English is not their English


(Salim Virani) #1

Communicating in English is harder than you think, especially when using it as a common language.

Quality has very different meanings in different parts of Asia. In the Netherlands, which has a very high rate of fluent English speakers, immersion is not a well-known word. The list goes on.

When you’re facilitating an international group, with people explaining things to each other, you’re sensitive to what people are picking up. You take note of the look on people’s faces to see if they understand, or they’re a bit confused. That’s when you notice — oh, that expression, pitching your company, doesn’t mean the same thing in Thailand than it does in Germany — and you ask someone to re-explain with different words.

We do a lot of cross-national facilitation, and these literal misunderstanding happen constantly. They’re subtle, but multiply quickly to muddy meanings.

There’s so much about our choice of words, and choice of expressions, that don’t come across as we expect.

When we’re in a classroom environment, listening to a lecture, we just skip the part we don’t understand (often because the lecturers choice of words don’t make sense to us) and we connect the parts we do understand. We don’t even notice we do this.

Like when you have a bad connection on a phone call but still understand what’s said even though you don’t hear every word.

Like when you skim blog posts, you still get the point. (Sometimes.)

Or with movies, you might know somebody who’s good at predicting the ending. There are usually multiple signals that indicate the plot progression, but viewers don’t pick up all of them. People who are good at predicting the ending usually are more receptive to these clues, because they already know the convention or the genre. They get it faster because they’re familiar with the context.

When we communicate, we assume the listener or the reader understands our paradigms and our conventions. And when they don’t, it’s not obvious to either us or them. They often misunderstand without realising, because our choice of words has a different meaning to them.

When people sing the wrong lyrics, they’re still singing something that make sense.

Do you know this line from the Jimi Hendrix song? Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

Or is it kiss this guy? Both have meaning, but they have very different meanings. The thing is, either interpretation doesn’t cause you to question what you heard. You just think you got it right.

We fill in the blanks incorrectly. Meanings get mixed up, and nobody notices.

As we seek to learn from people around the world, it’s important to keep clarity and simplicity of language in mind.

I’m all for eloquence and drawing on the vast tapestry of English wordilage [sic], but this attitude doesn’t help communicate well in most of the world. And there’s beauty in keeping it simple.

Having spent years teaching people on four continents, using simple language is a practical matter — you can decide to sound smart, or decide to be clearly understood.