People are not particularly good at critically evaluating themselves. Often, we are under the impression that we are more competent than we actually are. Alas! This misconception is present in language skills as well.
It has been my experience that English language skills in corporate India are in need of drastic improvement. Many engineers, managers, associates, executives, lawyers, accountants, and software programmers are unable to express themselves concisely and politely. At times, they find it challenging to communicate complex ideas. Their range of vocabulary does not permit them to express nuances; the same words/phrases get repeated in many different conversational settings.
And yet, when people are questioned about their English language abilities, after a few seconds of introspection, they reply that their English is actually, well, quite good. Why is this happening?
There may be a few reasons for this wide gap between perceived language skills and the grim reality. The first reason could be that people are not exposed to good language. They do not read books that are rich in idiomatic expressions and that have a variety of sentence structures. They do not have people around them who are proficient speakers of the language. They do not watch documentaries and movies which transport them out of their comfort zone and introduce them to words and grammatical structures that they would not usually encounter in their day-to-day lives. Hence, people do not know what is out there and what they are missing.
Fluency is often confused with accuracy. There are speakers who speak with confidence and fluency. When you hear them, they seem perfectly at ease with the language. They have a good rate of speech and use intonation appropriately. However, when you listen carefully, you start to notice things. They make basic grammatical errors (such as I didn’t went there) and they use words incorrectly. In a setting where the overall language level is low, these fluent, but inaccurate speakers, can be mistaken to have strong language skills. This leads them to believe that everything is okay, language wise.
At office, most people have roughly similar language levels. In general, some people are at the pre-intermediate level while almost everyone else is at the intermediate level. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This is true when someone with an intermediate level of English starts giving language advice to someone who is at the pre-intermediate level. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against one human being teaching another human being. But, this is not always an optimal solution. First, the person may be providing incorrect advice, leading to the spread of incorrect grammar and vocabulary. Poor grammar is especially contagious. Second, the person doling out the advice may consider himself to be a language guru. He may consider himself to be somewhat of an authority on the English language. Now, that is a disturbing thought. Will he ever be open to learning something new? Will he ever question his own level of competence?
So, is it varying combinations of ignorance and arrogance that leads a good person to overestimate his language level? Possibly. In all fairness, I would say that it is more ignorance than arrogance.
If you would like to have a better understanding of your language level, what can you do?
- Start by second guessing yourself. Are your reports as coherent as you think they are? Will the reader really understand the message you are trying to convey? Are you using words that precisely convey what you want to say? Do you have wide range of vocabulary? Are the same words appearing in email after email after email?
- Benchmark your communication skills with that of others. What language does the CEO use when she makes a presentation? When presenting, is she using intonation? If so, how well? Is there anything else you can learn from her?
- Test your English. You can access these online tests to get an approximation of where you stand:
You may not be as good as you think you are. A harsh statement, I admit. But, if you take it to heart, your future-self will be the beneficiary.
When it comes to assessing your language level: be humble; be open.