Today I went on a walk to Happy Valley. It was lovely: fresh air, green fields, bluebells and cowslips aplenty. It didn’t rain a drop, but just one bizarre conversation with a fellow walker rather dampened the atmosphere.
Him: So what do you do then?
Me: I’m a teacher.
Him: Oh, another teacher!
Him: What, primary, secondary…?
Me: I teach English to speakers of other languages.
Me: To adults. You know, people who need English for their work or to study, that sort of thing.
Him: Oh God, tell me about it! You know, I work in business and we’re forever having meetings where nobody can speak English. Bloody nightmare.
Him: They’re just so inefficient.
Him: I mean, I’m not complaining; it’s great for me. It’s made me a lot of money.
Me: How’s that?
Him: ‘Cos they just can’t communicate.
Me: So how does that make you money?
Him: No, I don’t think you’re understanding me. I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings, you see, where there’s like 10 people from all over the world and none of them speaks good English and they get nothing done. Bloody waste of time. And then when we have phone calls–don’t get me started.
Me: Yes, speaking on the phone can be problematic in any language. What were you saying about “good English”?
Him: You know, they’ve got a really strong accent and I can’t understand them.
Me: Do they understand each other?
Him: No! That’s the point! I can’t understand any of them!
Me: Right. And do they understand each other?
Him: No! I mean, I’m not complaining; it’s great for me. It’s made me a lot of money.
Me: Sorry, how has that made you money?
Him: [Sigh.] Look. They’re so bloody inefficient. You see, I work in finance. I’ve spent whole days in meetings for years. You have to understand, whole days made up of meetings.
Me: Yes, I understand. I teach people who–
Him: So we’re spending hours and hours in meetings where decisions have to be made and nobody bloody understands each other. They’re so inefficient. I mean, I’m not complaining; it’s great for me. It’s made me a lot of money.
Me: So how does this make you money?
Him: ‘Cos I come in and sort it all out for them! I fix the problems!
Me: Ah! Now I see. And what do you think is the problem?
Him: Nobody can understand each other!
Me: Now that is interesting. As a matter of fact, I do a lot of work in that area, as many people who use English now use it in that way, where there are people from many different backgrounds who need to use English together. It’s quite–
Him: You know what the problem is?
Me: Enlighten me.
Him: They don’t want to spend the money.
Me: How do you mean?
Him: These people are cheaper. So the company hires them.
Me: Are you saying that companies don’t hire people with the skills required?
Him: I know they don’t! I know the people with the skills required!
Me: Ah. So why would they hire these other people?
Him: Because they’re cheaper!
Me: So what’s the solution?
Him: Hire the people with the skills!
Me: The people with the business skills, or the people who speak English as a first language?
Him: [Sigh.] Yes.
Him: Look. They just don’t want to spend the money. They could spend £50k and get a native speaker in to do that job properly but they don’t want to do it.
Me: So you’re saying only native speakers can do those jobs properly?
Him: I didn’t say that!
Me: Hmm. Maybe they could spend some money on training their various employees to work in a multilingual environment?
Him: Look. The problem is you get these documents drawn up; they’ve clearly been copied/pasted from bits of other documents–you know how it is–and every sentence is grammatically perfect. But the whole thing doesn’t hang together. It doesn’t make sense from one paragraph to the next.
Me: I thought we were talking about meetings?
Him: No, what I’m saying is they can’t put a simple document together.
Me: Who can’t? The people who don’t have English as their first language?
Me: So you’re saying those people can make grammatically correct sentences but can’t string them together across paragraphs?
Him: No, you’re putting words in my mouth!
Me: I thought that was what you said.
Him: No, I said that every sentence is grammatically perfect but the whole document doesn’t fit, doesn’t flow.
Me: OK. So are you saying that native speakers can all construct perfectly coherent documents, but non-native speakers can’t? That seems to be implied.
Him: I didn’t say that! You implied it!
Me: Hmm. I’ve worked with many users of English, native and non-, and there are those in both categories who have difficulty writing coherent–
Him: But you get all these people together and they’re just so inefficient.
Me: All of them? Everybody? Always?
Him: Look, you don’t get it. This is my life, my work. I live this every day.
Me: Yes, and working in a multilingual classr–
Him: You don’t know what it’s like. These people are in a meeting. They need to reach a decision.
Me: Or write a document.
Him: You’re putting words in my mouth!
Me: You were just saying that non-native speakers of English couldn’t construct a coherent business document. Or you implied it.
Him: No, you implied that! Look, I know how it is. You get all these people in a room together; nobody understands each other; it’s so bloody inefficient. They need me to come in and sort it out.
Me: There is no other way to improve the situation? Why not train people to use language in international teams? That’s how English is used predominantly used in the business world now. And there are many successful international business teams.
Him: Look, in a business meeting–
Me: I do appreciate the situation. I have worked in international business. I have multilingual groups of students in my classroom every day. We work on the language skills needed for business meetings. It’s not easy or simple; I agree. But you seem to be suggesting that business people can’t communicate efficiently in English if it’s not their first language. Some people might find that a bit offensive.
Him: You don’t understand.