How Many Languages Can You Speak? - [website] Email Print
Published: 3rd of Jul 2017 by: Carolyn Kessler

Those of us whose home language is English have a decided and somewhat unfair advantage in the workplace. For a vast majority of our workforce, English is a second or third language, yet virtually all written correspondence has to be conducted in English - a tough ask for many.

We have a pretty unique situation in South Africa, given our eleven official languages’ policy. It’s manifested from school upwards – with children often having to learn in a language which is not their mother tongue. As a result, this is a root cause of myriad problems attendant when attempting to grasp difficult concepts whilst coping with a language barrier.

This difficult situation spills over into the business arena where people are, unfortunately, judged on their language skills - most especially with written correspondence.

We have a past where language was often used as a weapon. Sounds dramatic I know, but true non-the-less. People were stereotyped according to their mother tongue and treated accordingly. In some cases, this practise still holds sway.

Although the negative connotations around language have certainly lost much of their power, the need to produce professional written communication has not lessened. What has changed, with the advent of the global village, is the formality of the language of business documents. Thank goodness this has evolved to the point where it’s more important to get the information across than to prove how highly educated you are!

Common sense now prevails, and people are conscious that the recipient of their email could quite possibly not be an English first language speaker. As a result, the whole tone of our communications has morphed into an easily understood conversational style. You imagine the person to whom you are writing sitting across the desk from you. Are you likely to say: “During our telephonic discussion of the 24th instant we enumerated the following issues…… or would you more naturally open with: “When we spoke on the 24th of this month we covered the following points ….”

It’s all about ensuring the message is transmitted clearly and courteously, NOT about showing off one’s superiority.

Whenever I facilitate our Business Writing Skills or Report Writing courses, I am struck by how different things now are. I usually start with going round the table asking delegates which language is their mother tongue and how many other languages in which they consider themselves fluent. More often than not, I’m surrounded by people who are fully conversant in two, three or even four of our official languages, quite apart from any international ones.

So, when I say things have changed, I mean it. How truly ridiculous is it to feel superior to someone because they aren’t perfectly fluent in English, given that they’re likely to be conversing in their second or third language??

This being said however, our written correspondence must always be well thought out, clear, concise, and professional.


Staff Training is a soft skills training provider. Contact us at 0861 996 660.

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