Speaking and Listening Skills for International Workplaces
Resources for how to improve listening, intercultural, and conversational skills
Making the Time
Ram was promoted within his company and relocated from India to the US. He went from working alongside a team that all spoke Bengali to managing multiple teams from a variety of countries who spoke all different languages. He wanted to be able to communicate clearly with all of the teams, not just the ones he shared a language with, so he found me for private instruction to improve his English speaking skills.
He was a young husband with a baby and had been in the US for less than a year, but he made the time in his life for lessons and homework. In his audio recordings, I could hear dishes being done in the background and sometimes a baby that was in his arms, but he was always diligent about sending me his recordings and based on the improvement I heard, I knew he was practicing regularly.
He improved his communication skills and felt much more confident about his management skills. I am always impressed by how such busy people make the time in their lives to add on the voluntary work of improving their speaking skills.
Speaking Skills = Listening Skills
In international companies, or any company with international employees, whether they are managers or not, a recurring motivation for seeking speech coaching is that someone works with a variety of people who also speak foreign-accented English (and different American dialects), who are difficult for them to understand. They know that working on their own speaking skills also helps gain skills for listening to other people’s accents.
You can’t improve speech without improving listening, they are two sides of a coin. International companies have conference calls/video meetings with employees all over the world so the majority of people are listening to accented English that is different from their own. This applies to speakers of all languages and all varieties of English.
Resources for Improving Listening Skills
Most people don’t go out of their way to listen to accented English so when they encounter it, the situation is usually for business or within their own business interactions. If you know the native language of the people you’re interacting with that you’d like to get better at understanding, then try listening to more of that style of speaking when the situation isn’t important.
Look for tv shows or videos on YouTube.
Search for any word or phrase you want to hear in American, UK, or Australian Englishes on Youglish.com.
Listen to examples on the website IDEA - International Dialects of English Archive. It has examples of dialects from all the states in the US and from most countries around the world.
Speaking Skills = Cultural Skills
Usually, an employee is transferred to work in the US because of the skills they have for the position. This causes a sudden change in communication skills for managers and highlights the complexity of communication skills which are very culturally based and usually not taught explicitly. Speech coaching for non-native English speakers (or speakers of other Englishes who want to learn American English) goes beyond pronunciation and the sounds of English, it involves the cultural context in which the language is being used. The easiest thing to start with is pronunciation and vocabulary so there are fewer misunderstandings based on the literal words being used.
However, it can’t stop there, instruction has to include intonation and prosody because it’s often not what was said but how it was said that causes deeper misunderstandings. On top of that, there’s phrasing and expressions used in delivering information, feedback, instruction, and listening to employees. Overall, it takes more time and commitment to gain good communication skills in another culture than most people (and companies) realize.
Resources for Improving Intercultural Skills
There are so many books about intercultural communication skills that it can be overwhelming. However, one thing everyone wants to know about a language they’re learning and especially if they’re living and working in that country, are the swear and slang words. It’s good to know what to avoid and what the degrees of acceptability are. The website Urban Dictionary is a good place to start for English slang you’ve heard or browse randomly.
A book that I’ve used a lot when teaching international graduate students is, “Americans at Work: A Guide to the Can-Do People” by Craig Storti. It gives good background information about the American mindset, but also has specific advice for communicating with Americans in the workplace and specific forms of communication such as email, phone, and non-verbal.
“The Culture Map: Decoding how People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures” by Erin Meyer is a great book that looks at how multiple cultures communicate with each other. She has some good interactive tools on her website: https://erinmeyer.com/tools/
Resources for Improving Conversational Skills
Communicating clearly is difficult no matter what language you speak and a good book about conversational style in general (although written by an American with American conversational styles in mind) is, “That’s Not What I Meant!” by Deborah Tannen. It focuses on conversations between men and women, but she describes strategies that include the speech elements of pitch, pace, pauses, and rhythm, so it goes beyond what to say and gets into how to say it.
“The 7 Powers of Questions” by Dorothy Leeds troubleshoots what causes miscommunication and how it can be improved through asking the right questions, if you listen to the answers. She gives specific examples of the wording of questions and when to ask them.
Dignen, B. (2003). Communicating in Business English. South Korea: Compass Pub.
Leeds, D. (2000). The 7 Powers of Questions: Secrets to Successful Communication in Life and at Work. United States: Penguin Publishing Group.
Meyer, E. (2016). The Culture Map: Decoding how People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. United Kingdom: PublicAffairs.
Storti, C. (2004). Americans At Work: A Guide to the Can-Do People. United Kingdom: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Tannen, D. (2013). That's Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes Or Breaks Relationships. United States: HarperCollins.