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When mistakes are an advantage

Why do some non native speakers put pressure on themselves to speak like a native and not make any mistakes? One of the most common ‘complaints’ I hear is a lack of vocabulary. Managers and executives are putting themselves under pressure because they feel embarrassed when the words they’re looking for don’t come instantly to mind. They feel they should have better vocabulary, that they should be able to remember the simple words that they’re missing and greatest of all that they’re being judged by those they’re speaking to.

They feel a sense of shame that there English is (in their view) ‘so bad’ and start to apologise for their perceived lack. They feel self conscious speaking in front of colleagues and that it’s ‘unprofessional’ to not speak fluently, even as a non native. These people generally start looking either for ways to avoid having to speak in the work setting, or for English vocabulary and conversation courses. They feel it’s their English that’s the problem when in actual fact the bigger problem is their own perception.

As a native speaking English trainer and coach with over 25 years experience teaching English in business settings I’d certainly agree that intermediate level English is desirable if you need to present to your peers and your clients. And, if you’re producing written text that is seen outside the company, it had better be correct. However, I don’t believe making language mistakes and getting lost for words is something you should loose sleep over.

This might be controversial, but I believe is that it’s possible to use your errors to your advantage. Yes, that’s right, some language mistakes can actually help communication. When your English isn’t perfect people need to pay more attention to what you’re saying and unless you’re completely impossible to understand (which is unlikely if you have intermediate English) they have to pay more attention to what you’re saying, so they’re more engaged.

Consider these common concerns and how they can actually work to your advantage:

Lost words:

When you’re in a conversation with others and you can’t remember a word, it’s human nature for the people you’re communicating with to help you find the word you’re missing. Don’t believe me? If I say to you I can’t remember what the capital of France is. What word instantly comes into your head? Hopefully 99.9% of you will say ‘Paris’. When you’re interested in what someone’s saying and you speak their language it’s practically impossible to not subconsciously start searching for the missing word or fact when they’re speaking. This means that by forgetting words you’re actually getting them super engaged in what you’re saying!

Incorrect words:

If you’ve ever learnt a second language you must have got words wrong at some point. I don’t believe anyone learns a language without making mistakes, it’s only human. So when we make mistakes it shows our human side, which makes us more interesting and attractive to interact with as well as stimulating the other person to engage with us. My daughter, who was born in Germany, finds it hilarious when I make mistakes in German. My favourite pronunciation error was saying in German “Wir können es schafen” (we can sheep it) rather than “Wir können es schaffen” (we can manage it!) But despite my sentence making no sense at all, in the context the people seemed to understand exactly what I was trying to say.

Basic vocabulary:

Wish you had more sophisticated vocabulary? Keep in mind that in actual fact the average person’s active vocabulary is quite ‘average’ and getting fancy with your vocabulary could actually make you more difficult to understand. The criticism in your head about your ‘basic’ language skills are just that, they are in your head. Most people you’re speaking to are just thankful that a) you’re speaking English b) they don’t have to speak English instead of you, or c) they don’t have to learn German! Believe me, I’m always grateful when someone speaks English to me and I’ve never inwardly criticised a non native speaker for their language skills.

The native speaker who tries to impress with long fancy words can actually, turn people off, making them feel inferior and reluctant to ask clarifying questions. In contrast the non native who needs to get creative with their communication engages and entertains and can be refreshing to listen to and stimulate new perspectives.

Please also consider that you don’t have full responsibility for comprehension in a conversation. A conversation is a two or three way thing. It’s also the responsibility of the other person/people to say if something’s not clear! So, if you have intermediate level English, by all means brush up on your language, increase your vocabulary and attend a conversation course to boost your confidence. But, if you’re beating yourself up over any perceived lack and getting stressed about it, please, get some help.

Your English isn’t the problem, your fear of criticism is.

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