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In 2013, a client asked me, “Why do I understand you, but I don’t understand my co-workers?” Only when he made that comment did I realize I was subconsciously changing the way I spoke English with my clients who were not native English speakers.
Changing the way I communicated didn’t take away from my meaning; I was just saying things in a way I knew would be clear to my listeners, making communication easier. Then I thought, if we could educate colleagues who speak only English about how to speak like that, then everyone could communicate better almost instantly; whereas, if we focused only on the expats’ fluency, it would take 100-plus hours to reach a new level. So, whether you’re in HR, you’re the CEO or an account executive for an international relocation company, or you work with a multilingual workforce, you can improve communication immediately with a few basic insights. (For simplicity, I’m going to use examples based on the English language, but this works for any language.)
I call this technique “SASS:” Slow down, ask for input, simplify, and support.
Research shows that some languages sounded as if they were being spoken more quickly due to the number of syllables pronounced per second. However, in the final analysis, each language told the same story in the same amount of time. In other words, we each speak our native language at the same speed. The lesson is, if you’re a native speaker, be aware that you speak incredibly fast for someone who is not a native speaker, no matter which language you speak. So, however slowly you think you’re talking, do it at about 50% of what you think is slow.
If you’re a native speaker, be aware that you speak incredibly fast for someone who is not a native speaker, no matter which language you speak.
Ask for Input
When you are speaking with someone in their non-native language, a great way to make them feel comfortable and ensure the message was delivered clearly is to ask them, “What do you think about that plan?” or “What do you think we should do first?” Do not ask yes-or-no questions, and most definitely do not ask, “Did you understand?” By asking for input about the plan or the process you just relayed, you will be able to see whether the message was delivered clearly.
Do not ask yes-or-no questions, and most definitely do not ask, ‘Did you understand?’
Simplification is just as important as slowing down, but it is more difficult to understand and apply. For example, someone who has learned English from a textbook will know the word see, but not necessarily to see to something. They’ll know the word look, but not particularly look down on someone. They’ll know the word break, but possibly not break down.
Instead of: “I need to bring something up. I apologize for blowing up at the meeting last week. Since we’re getting on track now, I think we can call off the Saturday meeting. If you can just hand in your reports Friday, we’ll be golden.”
SASS-simplified paragraph: “I need to mention something. I apologize for becoming angry at the meeting last week. Since we are doing well now, I think we can cancel the Saturday meeting. If you can submit your reports Friday, that will be great.”
It is actually quite easy to support your multilingual staff. Do you know what will help them the most? Conversation. Every 100 hours of having conversations in your non-native language gets you closer to another level of fluency, confidence, and ease of speaking that language. Whether you’re eating at your desk for 15 minutes, sitting in the lunch room, or walking down the block to grab food—invite one of your colleagues to join you so they can get some speaking time in. This all helps give non-native speakers more confidence to speak more at meetings, give more input, and learn new vocabulary.
A Daily Reminder
I encourage you to write “SASS” on a piece of paper and put it somewhere in your office, so that it reminds you to think of what it means. You cannot change how you speak overnight, but you can remind yourself daily to incorporate SASS into your communication techniques with your multilingual colleagues, clients, and others to ensure communication is achieved. Isn’t that the goal?
Micah Bellieu is founder and CEO of Fluency Corp. She can be reached at +1 469 338 9382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above information is excerpted from an article that appears in the October 2019 issue of Mobility magazine.
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