Why Is it So Hard to Practice English Abroad on Business?

Ken Banks/Flickr

Ken Banks/Flickr

They say the best way to learn a foreign language is to speak it with others. Yet increasingly in the modern business world, working on an international scale means dealing with people in English.

Language is an essential component of international business. The more languages you have within your grasp, the more of an edge you have on your competition. This seems logical enough, but what if all the foreigners you come into contact with are reluctant to converse with you in their own language?

The International Language

It’s difficult to say whether the exclusive use of English as the international language is a good or bad thing in the boardroom. Undoubtedly there are certain benefits.

In the first instance, English is taught to students all over the world from an early age; as both a second and a native tongue. By contrast, learning foreign languages is becoming less and less important in Anglophone countries where English dominates conversation.

In the UK for example, there are 10,000 fewer students taking language exams this year than there were towards the end of the 1990s. The reason for this? Globally, people seem to be dead-set on conversing with the travelling Anglophone in English, whether the Anglophone in question can speak the local language or not.

Whichever continent you happen to be on, chances are you will encounter the English language frequently. In many countries, speaking English is a prerequisite for any job which involves contact with foreigners, everything from financial services to tending the bar.

Songs are sung in it. Popular television programmes are broadcast in it. Celebrities speak it in interviews. And of course, people use it to overcome language barriers.

But doesn’t speaking the local language convey a more authentic identity of a company? Isn’t it counter-productive to adapt local practice for the English-speaking business tourist? It seems to make sense that when staying in another country, you would learn and speak the local language to the best of your ability.

The Frustrations of the Learned Anglophone

Things get even more complicated when you account for the fact that many Anglophones are enthusiastic about the idea of using their language skills in business. A recent article by Michael Skapinker for the Financial Times highlighted this as a distinctly modern issue.

When attempting to speak French in a boardroom where his Francophone colleagues were in the majority, the author’s attempts to speak French were all but dismissed.

Skapinker’s response was one of bewildered disgruntlement. After all, learning a new language is no mean feat. By his own admission, the author works at his language skills virtually every day, reading the Paris press online daily and downloading French podcasts.

Even so, his attempts to engage foreign-speaking colleagues in the local dialect are often met with resistance. The individuals in question are usually willing and even complementary regarding his efforts for a short time, but will quickly revert back to English.

Skapinker finds this particularly perplexing considering that, according to his estimations, the quality of his French often exceeds the quality of the English spoken by his linguistic adversary.

So What Are the Possible Reasons for this Double Standard?

Perhaps the resistance is a compliment, as in, “Why speak our language when we could speak yours?” While this might seem naive, consider that those in question are as eager to speak English as you are to flex your own language muscles.

As you will no doubt be aware if you’ve found yourself in this situation before, people have pride in their ability to speak foreign tongues well. By speaking to your colleagues in English, you might unintentionally be calling into question their language skills, or worse, their professional competence.

Or conversely, Skapinker muses, “Perhaps Francophones don’t think I speak their language well enough.” As simple and gloomy as this explanation might be, it might just be true.

Could it be that we are frustrated when foreigners defer to English because it means that in their eyes we have failed to grasp the language well? Perhaps foreign countries are more protective of their own languages than we are.

Because Anglophones usually do not learn other languages, foreigners aren’t used to hearing us speak them. Skapinker asks, “are French speakers so unused to hearing foreigners speak their language that they cannot bear to have it mangled?”

Failing that, it may be something more personal. Perhaps English is so inextricably linked with international business that people prefer to speak it at work, reserving their mother tongue for friends and family.

If you share a passion for learning foreign languages, it may be worthwhile getting your language fix away from the office, perhaps among foreign friends who are willing to converse with you freely in a relaxed setting.

Most likely, if you meet resistance in your foreign language efforts, it will be the result of a combination of these factors. It all depends on the people you are doing business with. Either way, the situation may be that someone will always be dissatisfied when deciding on a language for business.

Coming to a Compromise

The important thing is to strive for fairness in your work environment. Perhaps you and your colleagues could arrive at some sort of compromise which benefits everyone by incorporating multiple languages. Essentially, the issues here all revolve around communication.

To that end, be vocal and express your desire to do business in the local language and hear others when they want to do business in yours. No matter what, the best way to do business is to be prepared to speak in whatever languages your colleagues may know.

Are you having trouble getting practice in your foreign languages? Contact Us to find out how to hone your skills with Language Trainers.