Business English - competent enough?

27.2.2013

Richard B Stephenson is a business communications specialist with degrees in business administration, political science and philosophy from Canada. Since 1995, he has worked with corporate communications training and consulting in Scandinavia & UK in the areas of rhetoric, sales, presentations, investor relations, communication techniques for leaders, and business language communication. Today, Richard is Managing Director of the Oslo based POLARIS Institute AS.

We often hear that Norwegians are good English speakers. Is this your understanding as well, or something we just like to believe?

Thinking of nations, perhaps only the Dutch are better, especially if we look at students. It's not however so simple. Relatively better is not the same as competent enough. More importantly, success also has very much to do with confidence: feeling confident enough to participate in meetings, to speak up, to express our thoughts and feelings with authority, etc. As people change jobs and as companies expand, the can find themselves in new situations. Suddenly they have gone from working locally to internationally, and the English skills become critical to success. They often feel unprepared and under-equipped. Lastly, English has such a rich vocabulary that people often find they are comfortable speaking in one context but can’t find the right words for their ideas in many other areas. These are the two biggest concerns for Norwegians working in English.

To what extent can being multilingual help increase profitability in our business?
It's difficult to say what poor communication or miscommunication costs companies per month or year in money, time or opportunity. It's also difficult to say what companies lose a year due to lack of communication - when their people choose to completely avoid situations in which they must communicate in English. What we do know is that deals, sales and projects are very frequently lost for these reasons and those that are won, are often less profitable and not delivered on time due to communication challenges. Problems arise in phone conversations, in email, meetings, documentation - everywhere suppliers, partner and customers interact. If you can't communicate well, it's hard to do business well.

It is an EU goal that students should be trained in at least two foreign languages. In Norway, students go through school with only one mandatory second language. What do you think about that?
Globalism has never been so widespread - the world has never been so small - communication has never been so important. It takes many skills and resources to succeed in any job, but any job that involves international work is critically dependent on communication, which means languages. Today, more than ever, the more languages we know, the more easily doors of opportunity open to us. Humans acquire language most easily before the age of 12, in fact even before the age of 7, as part of nature's survival system. After then, the part of the brain responsible for language "closes". When we learn language later in life, we actually need to turn on a new part of our brain, in the same cortex area, but new. When children learn more than one language they use the same part of the brain for multiple languages at the same time, and it's much easier. If we believe communication and language are important, we should provide children with the opportunity to learn additional languages when their brains are naturally best suited for it.

Can you please mention some of the most common "mistakes" Norwegians do in when negotiating in the English language?
There are two types of mistakes: those which are technically wrong but others still understand us; and those which are technically wrong and people don’t understand. There are many in the first category including things like preposition use, verb-subject agreement, etc. In the second category are two major challenges. The first is verb forms. We have twice as many in English for speaking in the past/present. Norwegians often consistently choose the wrong one, which causes problems. For example, they typically introduce themselves by saying something like, "Hello, I'm working for a consulting company and I'm living with my family in Trondheim." It could be understood from this that the person has recently decided to quit their job and leave their family, which is not at all what they intended to say. A second area and a very different challenge, is our strategic approach. Communication isn't just about grammar and vocabulary. If you "use" English the same way you "use" Norwegian, you will not likely be effective or successful at getting what you want from others. For example, in Norwegian we can be rather direct. When using English, we need to be quite indirect. There are many techniques here, which Norwegians seldom know how to use to their advantage.

Kommende kurs med Richard Stephenson:
Business English- bli trygg i bruk av engelsk i arbeidslivet