Why do Indians find business English so hard to master? And what can you do about it?

 

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Many Indians in the corporate sector find it a challenge to communicate effectively and effortlessly in English.

They find it difficult to write emails that are clear, concise, and grammatically accurate.

And when they speak, there are many Indianisms and pronunciation errors. This would not be much of a problem if we were communicating amongst ourselves. So for example, if someone in the Gurgaon office is on a video call with someone in the Chennai office, the two people will, by and large, understand each other.

The issue comes when we have to communicate with someone from outside the country. An American may not be used to our Indianisms (for example: do the needful). Or a foreign client may find it difficult to understand certain words that an Indian speaker pronounces in a particular way.

So, why do Indians find it so hard to improve their language skills? After all, whether one is living in Mumbai or Bangalore, one is in a world saturated with English. At work, we communicate in English with the head office, whether that office is in Singapore, London, Hyderabad or Kolkata. Most of the documents we read are in the language. At home, we have access to American/British sitcoms, movies, and songs like never before. And yet, after all of this, English is practically a foreign language for so many.

There are many reasons why Indian adults find it difficult to strengthen their language skills. For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on two main reasons:

  1. Overestimation of one’s own language skills

Many times, people tend to think that their English skills, are well, quite good. They are unable to critically assess their own language competency. And since many colleagues are making the same grammatical errors or pronunciation errors, it is difficult for one to realise the errors one is making.

2. Not aware of  the need to learn how to learn 

Let’s face it, as adult Indians, we are not the best of learners. At school and college we memorised facts and figures. The only time I studied at university, was one month before the final exam. That is not learning! True learning is all about being genuinely curious. It’s about self-reflection and forming opinions based on analysis. It’s about understanding one’s own interests, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s about finding out things by oneself.

It has been my experience that adult Indians are reluctant independent learners.  They want everything given to them. They want the trainer to ask the question and supply the answer. In short, they don’t want to mull over things. They do not want to discover the language by themselves.

This attitude makes it difficult to learn something as wide, varied, and dynamic, as a language.

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What can be done?  (I hear you ask.) As I’m sure you know, there is no magic pill. When it comes to language learning, this is my advice:

  1. Be an active learner. 

Pay attention to words and expressions that are used, both spoken and written.  The other day, I heard a person on a business channel use the idiom — on the anvil. I wasn’t 100% sure of its meaning, so I googled it.

If you ever come across an unfamiliar word or expression in print or otherwise, do not ignore it, however simple or straightforward it may seem. Jot it down, or immediately find out what it means.

94% of people in corporate India do not check the meaning of an unfamiliar word. I just made that statistic up, but I’m sure you get the point I’m trying to make. Don’t be lazy.

I have been conducting workshops on communication skills for many years. One recurrent theme that keeps coming up is that participants say that they do not have enough vocabulary to express themselves. I understand, but there is no easy way out. I’ve read that one has to come across a word up to 21 times, before one can use it appropriately and naturally.

Be an active, alert listener and reader.

2. Do not use big words to show off.  

Make sure that you are fully conversant with the word or expression you are using. Words are used in specific contexts and there can be subtleties in meaning and connotation. If you are not 100% sure of the meaning of the last word in the previous sentence, please look it up 🙂

Do not be under the impression that just because you have read a book such as Word Power Made Easy, your range and accuracy of vocabulary has dramatically improved. I’m not against that particular book. However, that book, and similar books, can only act as a guide, letting you know about the words that are out there. You will have to be on the lookout for these words and see how they are used in the real world.

3. This is going to take time. 

Be realistic. You are not going to see a significant improvement in your language skills in two weeks’ time. It is a process. Keep your eyes and ears open to language. When you read an email, spend a minute or two analysing it. Is it clear? Can it be better organised? Are there any words / expressions that are unfamiliar? How is the tone? Is it chatty, or is it formal? Is the tone appropriate? Keep analysing. Has the person used some aspect of grammar which you are unfamiliar with? Is there anything you can learn from the email?

If you want to improve your speaking skills, compare your pronunciation with that of a news anchor. In general, the anchors on NDTV and CNBC-TV18 speak well. Compare. Self-reflect. Start observing yourself: what you say and how you say it. If you are not sure how to pronounce a word, you can go to: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/. Type the word you want to check.

Before making a presentation at work, practise it at least three times. You can record yourself on your mobile phone. When listening to yourself, be critical. For example, are you speaking too fast? (Many Indians have a bullet-train rate of speech.)

Take it slow.  And you will begin to realise that you are pronouncing a particular word incorrectly. Or that the sentences in your emails are too long winding. (Trust me, many of them probably are.)

Remember, you do not have to immediately use an expression you have come across in the company newsletter. Take your time. Let it sink in.

4. Have fun. 

When you enjoy learning, you learn better. Watch cartoons, documentaries, and movies. Read political, business, and other magazines. Read newspapers: physical ones and the other kind. I often visit: www.guardian.co.uk. Read a variety of topics and opinions.  In this manner, you will expose yourself to different ways of expression and a wider range of vocabulary. The more you immerse yourself in the language, the more comfortable you’ll be in it. It’s as simple as that.

I notice that at times, people speak Hinglish with colleagues and English with the boss. This transition could be difficult; one may find it strenuous to suddenly express all of one’s thoughts in English.

I’m not asking you to speak in English all the time. I believe that it’s an asset that there are so many languages in India. But, I do urge you to get closer to the English language.

If you can, try karaoke, especially the old songs from the 50s and 60s. They tend to be slower, and the lyrics are often grammatically correct! Here is a song I discovered the other day:

 

Of course, if you think karaoke might not be practical at office, you can always sing at home.

I’m really serious about the fun part. It makes all the difference.

 

Keep these four points in mind and see how you can make them work for you.

Be strategic, don’t be casual, when it comes to improving your language skills. For instance, you can zero in on a specific aspect of the language that you wish to strengthen, such as pronunciation. And then plan how to  improve it over a period of time.

Effective communication is a skill that is appreciated. As you rise up the corporate ladder, it will become more important. If you make a sincere, systematic, and sustained effort to enhance your language skills, it will happen.

Guaranteed!