Chris Markiewicz's Blog
Every Monday – thoughts, observations and ideas that hold up a mirror to who & how we are

Speak fluent English? It could be a problem.

About two years ago I was running a programme for an IT services company in the north of England. At the morning break most of the group left to grab a cup of tea or coffee. One person stayed back however.  He was a young Japanese man who was very reserved and polite. He sat quietly looking through his notes while I made a couple of calls on my mobile thingy.

 Once I’d completed my calls I struck up a brief conversation with him:

 “How long have you been here in the UK?”

 “About 18 months” he replied in slightly faltering tones

 “18 months?” I confirmed “I guess you must be starting to feel like part of the furniture by now?”

 At which – silence

 The man looked down at his chair, then turned his gaze to the tables around the room and then looked blankly at me. He then smiled and nodded politely.

 I suddenly realised that he hadn’t really understood what I’d meant!

 This incident reminded me of some information I had come across some months earlier. It was about the way that we speak English – or to be more precise, how native English speakers speak the language.

 I will just chip in here with the fact that, although I was born in London, English was not my first language. I originally spoke only Polish and then picked up English as I went to school. It is now my primary language and I definitely consider it an asset that I now speak it like a native.

 Or is it necessarily an asset? Could it also be a hindrance?

 The aforementioned information I had picked up was about what is arguably the most widely spoken form of English on the planet. It’s called Offshore English and few native speakers are even aware it exists!

 Offshore English is the English that a Spaniard may use to speak to a Czech or that spoken between a Brazilian and a Thai. It is not the English I speak day to day, but a form of the language that is, in many ways simpler and clearer than the native version.

 English is an amazingly rich language. The wealth of expressions, nuances and vocabulary make it an incredibly enjoyable and stimulating language to engage with – that is, if it is your primary language or near as damn it so.

 Otherwise it can be an absolute nightmare.

 So as an example, can you decipher the following which, conceivably someone could say when dealing with an unhappy customer:

 “Hold your horses for a tick Mr Pereira, it looks like you’ve been sent on a wild goose chase. I guess that’s really got your goat”


 This is a rather extreme example, but illustrates how English colloquialisms could so easily cause confusion, bafflement or misunderstanding. When I verbalise such an example to a mixed group within a training room, there is usually a clear division between those who understand and those who clearly do not.  

 Offshore English serves to strip such confusing terms out of the language. It doesn’t seek to rewrite English per se, more to ensure that it is accessible and better understood by all when used in an international or multi cultural arena.

 Increasingly, I need to to be mindful of the language I speak in my role as facilitator or coach. If I’m working with a multicultural group, or running a course overseas or even just one person in the group doesn’t speak English as a native, I then need to adapt my own language accordingly. In one to one coaching, a term ued by the coach that confuses the client can stall or even taint the process.

 As well as the colloquialisms, another quirk of our beautiful language is the phrasal verb. Now, there is every chance you will not specifically know what a phrasal verb is unless you are an English teacher, study the language or work with it in some other formal way. Yet we use them all the time.

 Examples can include: Get up, go out, stay put, take off, sit down etc.

 Phrasal verbs are hugely confusing to non native speakers. As far as I know, English is the only language that has them in such abundance. We have learned them through practice and a kind of osmosis. However, I can still picture a Spanish former girlfriend of mine almost tearing her hair out as she was poring over her book of phrasal verbs trying to learn and understand them all.

 An illustration:  At this moment I am doing three things at once, all of which involve the verb “ to sit”. I am sitting down, I am sitting up and I am sitting forward (as I type). How about the phrasal verb to “put out”? I can put out a fire, I can put out the cat, I can feel put out, I can put out a request to people….  This demonstrates the confusion (and yes, the richness) that our amazing language can wreak.

 One evening my Spanish girlfriend – who was an au pair to an American family in London – went into the lounge to say good night. Clayton, her boss and his wife were sitting with a glass of wine watching TV.

My girlfriend said “I’m going up to bed and I’ll say good night. Clayton, would you be able to get up me again in the morning?”. The rest of the couple’s evening was devoted to the poor man trying to convince his beloved that there was no hanky panky going on!

 If you have read my blogs over recent weeks, you may have gathered that I have a fascination with conflict – how and why it happens and ways to deal with it. One of the key, early stages in any conflict is misunderstanding. I go as far as to say that virtually any conflict, crisis, foul up in the workplace will have some kind of initial misunderstanding at its root. This probably applies in all cases, apart from technical problems or breakdown. 

 If the very language I speak doesn’t engage the other person, if they don’t understand, that could be the seed of a much bigger problem. If my colloquial English doesn’t land with my German or Chinese colleague, there is every chance that they may not ask me to explain. People hate to look stupid so, all too often refrain from querying.  Result – confusion, upset, potential crisis or conflict.

 Replicate this  many times a day within a large global organisation employing people from all over the planet, and you have a very costly problem

 Therefore clear, unambiguous communication has to be part of the way forward..

 So, in the case of phrasal verbs, see if there is a simple verb that could be substituted. Eg: Tolerate rather than put up with or annoyed rather than rubbed up the wrong way.

 With colloquialisms you simplify by communicating the essence of the expression: “Can I ask you to wait a moment” rather than “Hold your horses”

“I guess you were upset” rather than “It must have got your goat”

“I don’t enjoy that” rather than “It’s not my cup of tea”

 That way, the other person is less likely to be confused in the way that my Japanese delegate was.

 There are now courses available where native English speakers, whether from the UK, US or elsewhere can re-learn their own mother tongue in order to compete effectively in the Global market place!

 The alternative? This is neatly summed up in the following story I heard recently.

 The airport authority in Seoul, South Korea were looking for a company to supply them with new flight simulation equipment. Two companies were in the shortlist – one British, one French. The French company ended up winning the bid. The Koreans gave the following as one of the main reasons they went with the French:

 “We understood their English better”

 I guess that really takes the biscuit. So, on that note I think I’ll wrap up and throw in the towel for today



One Response to “Speak fluent English? It could be a problem.”

  1. Cerrtainly “food for thought” – I was facilitating a Change workshop recently to a group of English, Indian and South African people who work for a global FMCG company. I do try to speak more slowly and avoid colloquialisms, but because my style is quite animated and passioned, I suspect that I may have “slipped the odd one in” . Of course, the counter balance here is that to speak in “off shore” English, might come across as a little stilted to the English so herin lies a dilemma. Do you aim for maximum impact by presenting in a naturally charismatic manner, or seek to ensure everyone understands which may mean some degree of compromise is required.

    Which brings me onto the point of French – I am learning French but falling way behind an associate colleague of mine who has done several weeks of full immersion teaching. He called me recently and I expected him to be really excited at the progress he had made. He told me about a dinner he attended in Paris where he understood very little, and therefore didn’t have the confidence to contribute. He contrasted this to the success he felt when dealing with hotels, restaurants etc who of course were conversing in “off shore French” !!

    Off now to “have a ball” this weekend, “back to the grindstone” next week, “Christmas beckons”, bet Oxfords Street will be a “nightmare”. Undersatnd, hope so !!

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