“Sorry, My English Just Isn’t Good Enough”

Leonilda Renaldo

“Sorry, your English just isn’t good enough for business.” Is it just me, or do these words cut like a knife because they point to our insufficiencies? Often times, these abrasive words reside in our heads every time we come across a word or expression in the workplace. We are stricken with fear at the realisation that after all the years spent learning English, it’s just not good enough.

I’m sure we have all experienced that very embarrassing moment at work when the speaker uses an expression (usually an idiomatic one): your mind goes blank in the middle of a decisive discussion, there’s no turning back, what to do?

And you think to yourself:

– “I will never be up to standard, I’m just not cut out for this language, my English isn’t good enough.”

– “So, I’ll work harder or I’ll give up trying.”

Calling all business executives who don’t know what to do when they don’t understand English spoken by a native speaker.

Switzerland’s pride and joy, professional Tennis Player extraordinaire Roger Federer did just that in front of thousands of people at Wimbledon. Watch this clip to see how Roger demanded clarity from the speaker. 

“My mind went blank when I didn’t recognise what you said.” Once the interviewer rephrased the question, a relieved Roger said “Ah, that’s it, now I know what you’re talking about”. It takes a lot of courage and humility to do what he did.  He gave more value to communicating than to his ego of not wanting to look bad. To make light of the situation, Roger facetiously admitted that “his English wasn’t’ good enough”.

Roger has a level C2+ in English, very advanced level, yet there was an idiomatic expression he didn’t understand.

The repercussions of that statement are keeping you stuck. It’s not that you have bad memory or that you are more of math person than a language person. It’s the story that repeatedly tell yourself “my English isn’t good enough”, “I’m sorry”. What are you sorry for? Is this apology or justification making it easier for you to speak and participate in decisive conversations? What is your desired outcome from admitting to your poor English? Sympathy? The constant repetition of these words are telling your brain and your listener that you are not credible, you will never be up to standard to conduct business.

There are two sides to confessing to poor English 

1/when said with confidence, it can nudge the speaker to clarify (this is what Roger did) – you are no longer on the spotlight, they are

2/when said apologetically, the spotlight is on your incompetence and disempowers you. Don’t be surprised if suddenly the speaker slows down their speech mistaking comprehension for deafness.

Communication is a shared responsibility between the speaker and the listener. It is your responsibility to say you didn’t understand. There are ways to do it so you don’t loose any skin in the process. After all, we are not Roger Federer who can get unconditional support from his fans, who found him adorable. But we do deserve clarity.

Thanks to the diversity and inclusion efforts in companies, the English language is in constant evolution. Global English or Globish is here to stay and if native speakers don’t adapt and filter their English when communicating with non natives, they will find themselves clueless.

All the world is a stage, men and women are merely players. Position yourself in a light that allows you to be part of the conversation not be dismissed from it. 

Before your next conversation with a native speaker you need to be emotionally prepared, here’s what you need to know:

  • There are 378 million Native English speakers in the world, and 743 Million* non native English speakers. Native English speakers will have to adapt and learn to filter their English when communicating with non natives. 
  • When, like Roger you really don’t get what the speaker is saying: interject elegantly = “I didn’t quite catch that, could you rephrase” (this will save your speaker having to repeat the same sentence numerous times (like the British host)
  • Replace “My English isn’t good enough” with “it sounds like I’m learning something new today”

*Ethnologue, 21st Edition

You want to be able to not only speak but to influence the next course of action in your team, your company. Not expressing yourself is giving away your power. Accept to be on a continuous journey of learning and reinforcing the language, Roger Federer is still learning new expressions and idioms and he’s having fun in the process. Long term language success in the boardroom starts with how you position yourself. 

If you need to speak up so you are no longer silenced in a business situation I am happy to support you, send an email to contact@leonildarenaldo.com or apply for the Boardroom English® Program here https://leonildarenaldo-bre-co.youcanbook.me

I’m Leonilda Renaldo founder of LeoDynamics I teach mid to senior managers the language of the boardroom so you can get paid, promoted and recognised.


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