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!

 

 

 

3 or 4 misused punctuation marks

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For some reason, I’m a fan of punctuation marks. And to my dismay, I find that they are misused many a times in business writing.

Here are three common errors:

1. Semicolon

The semicolon is used to divide two sentences that are in some way related to each other. The key word is ‘sentence’. There has to be a sentence on both sides of a semicolon. Here are two examples:

I enjoy punctuation; the semicolon is my favourite mark. (correct usage)

I enjoy punctuation; the semicolon. (incorrect usage)

When you use a semicolon, think about whether it divides two sentences or not. What is a sentence? I hear you ask. A sentence is a group of words that:

a. has a subject and a verb;

b. makes complete sense on its own.

2. Exclamation marks!

Note that I used just one exclamation mark for the sub-heading. On is more than enough. Do not write: !!! Using too many exclamation marks dilutes the impact of your message. From now on, carefully dispense with these marks.

3. The use of the dash and colon

There are many uses of these punctuation marks, but I have one particular use in mind. When introducing a list, many people in India start with :–

That is redundant. Either go with the colon (:), or go with the dash (–). Why go with both? That makes your writing unnecessarily heavy.

I leave you with this thought. When it comes to using punctuation, keep it light.

 

3 tips to improve your email writing

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Many people find it difficult to write effective business emails. I see two reasons for this. The first is that they are not approaching the act of writing in a methodical manner. To put it bluntly, they do not give much thought to writing an email. They write it and then press the send button. The second reason is that they do not have the language to convey what they want to say.

In this post, we’ll be tackling the first reason: that is how to approach the act of writing an email. Here are my suggestions:

1. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. 

 

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Who are you writing this email to? Do you need to be formal or informal? How much background information should you include? Do you need to CC anyone else?

To answer all these questions. Think of a pair of shoes, that are not yours. And then, put your feet into them. Warning: it may hurt you!

If the email is for close colleagues, then you can be informal or semi-formal. If it is destined for the CEO, then perhaps you should be more towards the formal side of the scale.

If you are writing an email to colleagues who are working on the same project, then you may not need to give too much background information. However, if you are sending an email to a vendor, then you may need to give lots of background information.

2. Write short sentences 

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After delivering email writing workshops for many years, this has been my number one learning. Write short sentences. Write short sentences. Write short sentences. Yes, I really cannot emphasize it enough! If you are not confident of your grammar, this piece of advice really helps. I have seen long sentences winding their way through an email. And the longer they wind, the greater the chance that they will contain grammatical errors.

Try counting the words in your sentences. You should be able to manage with seven to twelve words per sentence. Try it. You’ll thank me later 🙂

3. Think before you hit that send button

 

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Once it’s gone, it’s gone. There have been many embarrassing situations. For instance, a message CCed to everyone, when that was not the plan. Or, someone sent a message in a fit of anger to her boss. And then minutes later, the sender regrets the language she used. Or… Well, there are so many scenarios. You may have your own example.

I know that many people cannot resist pressing that send button. After pressing it, the email has left your screen. Thank god… But, remember, it will soon show up on someone else’s screen. So ask yourself these questions. Have I edited the message? Are there any grammatical errors? Have I explained myself clearly? Is the message polite? (For polite language, you can read my post on 7 tips to soften your language . )

 

Keep these 3 points in mind, and your email writing skills will improve. I promise it will. (See how effective a four-word sentence is.)

 

 

7 tips to soften your language

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In informal language, you can say just about anything. And you don’t necessarily have to be polite.

This is not the case when using language at the workplace. Here the language needs to be more controlled, structured, and polite.

Let’s look at seven words or phrases which can soften your language:

  1. Thank you 

Use this phrase as often as possible. Don’t worry, the universe is not running out of thank you’s.

When you receive an email from a colleague, acknowledge it with: Thanks, Janet!

Or, if it has to be more formal: Thank you for sending the updated file.

If you are corresponding with someone outside your office, you can use ‘thank you’ as a form of acknowledgement.

Instead of writing:

This is to acknowledge the receipt of your application dated 12.02.18,

you could write:

Thank you for sending your application on 12.02.18.

Doesn’t that sound better?

2. Please

Pulease… Is used by teenagers often. And they are right in using it. Like ‘thank you’, please should be used often. Use please with everyone: to both your superiors and subordinates. Especially to your subordinates…

Compare these two lines:

Make sure that the annual reports are printed by 2 pm.

Please make sure that the annual reports are printed by 2 pm.

The word ‘please’ softens the sentence. And makes it sound less like a command. The person reading this message would respond positively to it.

3. Can vs. Could vs. May (asking for permission) 

The most informal way to ask for permission is can.

Can I use the conference room for ten minutes?

At work, if you wish to be more formal, use could.

Could I use the conference room for ten minutes?

If you are in a formal situation, then go for: may.

May I use the conference room for ten minutes?

4. Can vs. May (giving permission) 

When giving permission, we say, ‘yes, you can‘ or ‘yes, you may‘.

May is more polite than can.

Don’t say: yes, you could. That may cause some confusion in the mind of the listener. Well, could I, or couldn’t I?

5. Would 

Would is an excellent word to use when trying to soften your language.

Would you agree?

That’s softer than: Do you agree?

Here are some expressions that use ‘would’:

Would you mind if we start early tomorrow?

Would you like to read the summary first?

I would suggest we look at other options.

  6. Shall  

This is a polite verb to use. For example:

Shall I call all the interns?

Shall we start the meeting?

In fact, the term ‘shall we’ can be used at the start of almost any activity:

Shall we start the presentation? Shall we start the conference call? Shall we break for lunch? Shall we

When starting an activity (meeting, presentation), it’s a good idea to use: we. It’s a nice way of making people feel included.

7. Let’ s 

In a more informal setting, say with colleagues who you know well, you can use ‘let’s’ instead of ‘shall’.

Let’s start the meeting.

Let’s listen to Nalini’s update.

Let’s order a cake!

 

Being polite is important. It creates a positive atmosphere at work and is a professional way of conducting yourself.  Could being polite become contagious? I certainly hope so…

 

 

Will vs. Would

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Let’s look at when to use will and would.

After reading this post, I’m sure you’ll agree that ‘will you marry me?’ is a better option than ‘would you marry me?’.

Use of will 

We use will to talk about the future. For example:   

“Natasha will complete editing the report by this evening.” 

We also use will when we decide to do something at the moment of speaking:

“Don’t worry. I will help you with the accounts.”

 Use of would

There are many ways to use would. We use it:

  • to talk about the past, in the same way we use ‘used to’.

When I was in Mumbai, I would jog everyday in the morning. 

When Praveen was here, we would review the sales figures every Monday. 

  • to ask a polite question.

Would you like to meet the duty manager?”

  • to make a polite request.

Would you mind if we leave early?”

  • to make a polite recommendation.

“I would suggest that we wait till tomorrow.”

  • to talk about something conditional.

“If I were you, I would hire both of them.”

 “I would attend the conference, if I could find the time.” 

“I would have sent you the file, if you had asked me.” 

  • with indirect speech.

“He said that Anjali would meet us tomorrow morning at the hotel.”

In indirect speech, we are reporting what someone else said. In that case, we use would and not will. We should not say: “He said that Anjali will meet us…”

When to use will instead of would

There are situations when using would could cause some confusion. Let’s look at these two sentences:

I would send you the finalised contract.

I will send you the finalised contract.

The first sentence sounds tentative. I may or may not send the contract. The unsaid meaning could be: If certain conditions are met, I would send it.

While the second sentence is more certain. It is more reassuring: yes, I will send it.

Having said that, do keep in mind that the use of would and will can be more nuanced. For example, if you want to be polite and are sure that there will be no confusion in the mind of the reader, you can write: I would send you the finalised contract. However, if you feel that there could be room for misinterpretation, then go for: I will send you the finalised contract.

And now you know why the question is: will you marry me.

Would you agree?

 

 

 

 

 

 

When do I use: ‘&’ ?

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I was in Uttarakand recently, where I stumbled upon this rather clever sign (note the bullet holes!). And it made me start thinking about the symbol ‘&’, which is read as: ampersand.

In corporate India, the ampersand is commonly used in business emails. If you are writing formal communication, it is better to go with the full form: and. Try to avoid using ‘&’. It gives the message an informal feel.

However, this symbol does have a place in the business world. The ampersand is used in the titles of companies, think Tata & Sons, or Ernst & Young.

Of course, when you are SMSing and WhatsApping friends, it is absolutely fine to substitute ‘and’ with ‘&’. In informal communication, the rules of writing are relaxed and priority is giving to speed and convenience.

When you’re writing your next business email, check whether you are using the ampersand…

 

Why not: Trusted from 1906?

 

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At times, I have heard: “I’ve been working here from 2015.”

Actually it should be: “I’ve been working here since 2015.”

Or one can say: “I’ve been working here for two years.”

Here is how since and for are used:

since + point in time       (since 1906)

for + period of time        (for 10 years)

We do use from with time expressions, but in a different sense. Here are some examples:

The conference starts from tomorrow. 

The shop is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. 

And yes, by now you know why the ad is correct: Trusted since 1906.

In fact, from now on, you know the difference between since and for.