Supporting non-native speakers

Mursal Hedayat explores how to support employees who speak English as a second language

Fears of a recession are slowly applying the brakes to the roaring pace of UK hiring. Yet, as LinkedIn personalities tell us daily, we’re still in the midst of a ‘war for talent’. The aviation industry is the most recent to pull headlines for staffing shortages; only 50% of trained flight attendants last more than a year in a job.

English language fluency is one of the business-critical skills employers are competing for. In fact, fluent speakers are in high demand well beyond the UK’s shores; in India, employees who speak English earn 34% more than their non-English speaking peers; in Brazil, that figure rises to 51% more. Consequently, an increasing number of professionals work in English, though they were brought up, think, and dream in another language.

It is worth companies and their leaders to keep this in mind. Teammates who speak English as a second language are shouldering an additional burden at work to native-speaking peers. To retain multilingual talent, it’s vital to acknowledge the extra effort required of non-native professionals and, where necessary, provide support.

An increasing number of professionals work in English, though they were brought up, think, and dream in another language

It starts with the hiring process

Opening your recruitment to candidates whose English skills aren’t yet fluent can be a secret weapon. I can confirm this first-hand: In 2016, I founded Chatterbox, a company that hires degree-qualified refugees, among other marginalised professionals, to deliver corporate language training. I’ve been continually blown away by the level of untapped talent in the refugee community. Yet, this group is systemically underemployed, with language skills often cited as a factor.

Our team recently conducted a study into the barriers to finding jobs. One man we spoke to, K*, a marketing professional from Syria, has very good English skills. However, at one interview, he was thrown off by an HR lead’s regional accent. Minor accommodations in the interview, perhaps forewarning, could have changed K’s life and given his prospective employers a clever and compassionate way to fill their skills gap. Instead, both have lost out.

Invest in language training

Many companies do hire skilled professionals whose English isn’t perfect, usually with an implicit understanding that their fluency will improve with daily practice. However, as with other core skills, this shouldn’t be the employee’s burden to shoulder alone.

In parallel situations, we acknowledge inequities in upbringing and education should be addressed in the workplace. Workplace training schemes today are rightfully rich, and can propel talented people from less privileged backgrounds forward in leadership, management, and interpersonal skills, among other areas.

As an investment in D&I, high quality language training is certainly worthwhile. Keep in mind that, for most learners, the only way to progress up advanced language levels is to use solutions that include regular, live speaking practice. There are plenty of language training options available that offer one-on-one coaching or tutoring.

Set guidelines for written and verbal communication alike 

The fear of being seen to be less capable can prevent even the most confident employee from revealing they need additional support. Therefore, it’s essential to build consideration of your team’s language needs into company culture. You could circulate guidelines on clear communication. At a minimum, these should advise employees to avoid culture-specific idioms and slang, and advise sending agendas ahead of long meetings.

There’s a whole industry around tools to support non-native English speakers to live their professional lives in English. Gmail’s autocomplete feature is a godsend for speed-writing emails, as is the AI-powered writing checker, Grammarly. For Zoom and Google Teams meetings, many swear by live AI subtitling. Mentioning these in guidelines sends out a powerful signal that there’s no stigma in seeking language support.

Promote non-native speakers 

To retain top international talent long term, non-native speakers should be represented at C-suite level. Guillemtee Dejean, (co-founder and COO at Chatterbox) is herself a non-native English speaker. Her leadership launched the startup, and as a side-benefit, sets a powerful precedent that celebrates linguistic diversity. She remains modest about her fluency: “Building a company in a second language is mostly an advantage, but comes with quirks! Sometimes I have to secretly turn on the subtitles functions in calls. And if need be, I’ll ask for the meaning of a word, even with important people in the call. I think it’s important to always leave room for learning. We’re all learning in many ways and language is one of them for me.”

A culture where no languages are “foreign”

It sounds counterintuitive, but the most comprehensive way to support non-native speakers is to build a language upskilling programme that prioritises more than just English. In the UK, native English speakers sometimes avoid learning second languages, yet learning languages fosters greater empathy and cultural intelligence – the building blocks of an internationally-minded outlook.

Creating a culture where employees working in a second language can flourish pays dividends. Another sign of Dejean’s skills is that she can pitch investors, hire teams and manage operations, whilst grappling with a second language. If a colleague is smart enough to translate every idea in their head before vocalising it, and still come across as an expert – then they’re probably very expert indeed.

Mursal Hedayat MBE is CEO and co-founder of Chatterbox

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