Professionals whose native language is not English can be in for a rude awakening when they go to work for an organization where English is the dominant language. Often, these professionals have studied English in school and thought that they had a good level of proficiency.
But working day in, day out in English is more challenging than they imagined. They struggle to keep up at meetings and hesitate to express ideas because they lack confidence in their business English skills.
If you find yourself in this situation, please know that you’re far from alone. Even if you’re from a country where English is commonly taught and used, you may still be unprepared to perform your job entirely in English and collaborate with native English speakers.
And you may be wondering how you can get better at business English — and do so quickly.
We have some good news for you: Even small improvements in your business English skills can make a big difference in how easily you can do your job and collaborate with others. So where should you start in improving your English? We’ve got a game plan for you.
1. Take Relevant, Tailored English Classes
If you’re dubious about taking more classes when your previous studies didn’t prepare you to work in English, hear us out. Chances are, your English classes in school were pretty generic or “cookie-cutter.” Everyone learned the same vocabulary words and common phrases. But that basic vocabulary will take you only so far in a fast-paced office.
Another common problem? No conversational practice with native English speakers. Now don’t get us wrong. Practicing English with your classmates wasn’t a waste of time. But it also wasn’t enough to prepare you for an English-speaking office.
We always recommend business English classes (instead of, say, just using language apps) for non-native speakers who work mostly with native English speakers. But you must choose classes carefully. Ask any language trainer you are considering whether they can customize classes to your unique needs.
For example, a marketer who regularly delivers presentations and a lawyer who writes a lot of briefs need different things from their English classes.
And here’s another thing to ask before you sign up for an English class: How much conversational practice will you get with native speakers? Without a doubt, conversation is the most effective way to improve your business English. And while we’re on the subject of conversation …
2. Find a Conversation Buddy (or Two)
You’ll get better at business English even faster if you have conversations outside of your English classes as well. Yes, speaking at meetings totally counts. But you also need opportunities to talk with native speakers when you feel less pressured and self-conscious.
If you lack confidence in your English skills, it’s easy to bow out of lunches or after-work activities with your colleagues. But we think you’ll be surprised by how understanding your coworkers are and how eager they are to help.
If your team includes other members who aren’t native English speakers, maybe your workplace could set up a “buddy system” program to pair native and non-native speakers for conversational practice. This might be an especially good option for remote teams where spontaneous conversations are less likely to happen.
Talking more with your colleagues outside of meetings has so many benefits. You’ll learn more about how English is really spoken than you ever could from a textbook. And you can also learn about each other’s cultures.
3. Practice English Outside of Work
If you want to get better at business English, you can’t just practice while you’re at work. Add more English to the rest of your day, too. For example, listen to English-language podcasts while you’re commuting or at the gym. It’s great if these podcasts happen to be related to your work, but they don’t have to be. Anything you find engrossing will help your English skills.
We mentioned earlier that you can’t rely solely on language-learning apps to improve your business English, but apps are a great supplement to English classes and conversational practice. We also encourage you to read English-language books or articles in your leisure time. Again, don’t limit yourself to materials that are related to your work.
A fiction bestseller can be very effective. Look for a novel that you’ll have fun reading and that contains lots of dialogue. Dialogue will help you improve your skills with everyday English conversation. You also want to read books with current English words, phrasal verbs, idioms and slang.
4. Get Familiar with ‘Office English’
English as it’s used at work can feel like an entirely different language sometimes. What are these “bells and whistles” that everyone keeps talking about? And what is this “box” that you’re supposed to “think outside of”?
We explain these terms and many others in Fluency Corp’s guide to office English. (It might make you feel better to know that your colleagues who are native English speakers get annoyed by business jargon, too.)
5. Consider Accent Reduction Classes
Finally, we want to talk about a possibility that often gets overlooked when a non-native English speaker is having trouble with workplace communication: Your English fluency might be solid, but your accent keeps you from being understood. We’ve even met British people who have a hard time with their colleagues’ U.S. accents — and they share a language!
An accent has a very real effect on how other team members perceive you. According to researchers Kristin J. Van Engen and Jonathan E. Peelle, if your colleagues aren’t familiar with your accent, they’ll have trouble understanding and processing what you’re saying.
If you have concerns about how your accent is affecting your work, look for English classes (like ours!) that can be customized to focus on pronunciation. We also have some tips to help you communicate more clearly with an accent.
Learn Business English with Fluency Corp
At Fluency Corp, we’ve helped professionals in all fields improve their business English skills so that they can accomplish the goals that are important to them. Most of our clients get results that others can notice after just 10 hours of instruction.
Our highly tailored classes, taught by native English speakers, include lots of practical, conversational experience to help you learn English faster and apply what you’ve learned right away.