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Three Challenges Non-Native Speakers face in the Workplace (and how to overcome them)

First, let's be really clear about one thing: If your English is good enough that you can use it at work, congratulations to you. Achieving this level in a second (or possibly third!) language is a huge achievement and one that deserves your pride and other people's respect. Moreover, as diversity becomes ever-more important, companies are recognising that having staff who are able to speak more than one language is good for the company. A more diverse staff brings more cultural understanding and a wider range of view points and ideas, all of which is essential for a company's growth and development. However, even assuming you are an advanced or proficiency-level English speaker, my guess is that using English at work still causes problems and challenges that you may not know how to deal with. Not only that, but your company or manager may not understand the problems you are facing, and the company culture may not feel particularly friendly at times. In this post, I'm going to talk about three common problems that non-native English speakers face at work and offer some suggestions on resolving these issues.

Lack of support and understanding

Imagine that your manager has asked you to give a presentation on the latest sales figures. Normally you wouldn't mind, but you've only been given ten minute's notice. Oh, and the CEO is going to be listening in too. Truthfully, this would be a daunting prospect for a native speaker, but for a non-native speaker it can be even more scary. Not only do you need to make sure you are clear about the figures, but you also worry about your pronunciation, getting the collocations right and handling difficult questions and interruptions. In other words, as a non-native speaker, you have extra challenges that native speakers simply don't need to worry about. And because they don't need to worry about these challenges, most native speakers don't realise what you really need to do in order to give a great presentation.

So, what can you do to help yourself here? First, it can be really helpful to have your own dictionary of useful phrases for presentations (or emails, or meetings etc). You can do this in any way you like such as on a Google doc or in a notebook. Then, when you are asked to do something at short notice, you already have the linguistic information to hand. For managers, remember that your non-native speaker staff may need a little extra time to think and prepare. This is not because they are stupid, far from it! It is simply that their understanding of English works in a slightly different way to that of a native speaker and they need more time to collect their thoughts. Being silenced in meetings

If you have to attend meetings where there are many native speakers, feeling safe enough to voice your opinions can be difficult. Your native speaker colleagues may talk very fast, use unusual idioms or phrases or make cultural references that you are not familiar with. Not only that, but they may not give you the space you need to process the conversation or to organise your thoughts. All of this can lead to you not wanting to speak out for fear of making a mistake or looking stupid in front of your colleagues. And your native speaker colleagues are quite possibly not aware of what you are going through! To help yourself in this tricky situation, take notes on the key information you hear. Remember that a lot of spoken English is irrelevant and you don't need to understand absolutely everything. Keep your attention on the most important facts. Secondly, don't be afraid to ask for clarification. It's a completely normal thing to do, even in a first language. People have different communication styles which can cause confusion. Learn a few ways of asking for clarification…. then use them! If you are a manager, try nominating people (i.e. asking people's opinions directly) as well as allowing for a free-flowing discussion. Watch out for those who like to dominate the discussion as they may be unsettling not only for your non-native speaker staff but also for quieter native speakers too. Preventing people from interrupting others so that everyone is able to speak without fear that they will be stopped can also help greatly. Dealing with English overwhelm! Even if you are extremely proficient in English, it can be very tiring to be surrounded by English all day. You need to process everything in a second language and this is cognitively challenging. It's important to remember to take a break from time to time. It's okay to do something in your first language at lunch time, for example, or to take five minutes outside to reset your mind.

Sometimes people beat themselves up because their English doesn't feel 'good enough' and they find that they still have problems with certain areas of the language. I'd like to finish this post by sharing a story about my partner who is a non-native English speaker. He has been living in the UK since he was ten, for over forty years. His spoken English is very good and also very expressive and articulate. However, he told me that he still has to translate to his first language at times and that this can slow him down. Even now, he feels uncomfortable about doing some things in English.

The point is that if someone who has spent most of their life in the UK is still struggling with certain things in English, why would you feel bad about yourself and your language skills? Having the confidence to ask for what you need (more time to prepare or more support) is not a sign of weakness. Having a super-strong second language is a skill that you have worked hard for, and one which your company and your colleagues should respect you for.

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