Language yes, culture no


A (foreign) top manager once told me with no roundabouts he wanted to learn more English but hated the ‘English way’, so he expected me to include no reading or discussion of issues within the British or American society. He just needed the language for his business. I raised my eyebrows, made a note on my sheet and asked him to go on. Which he did, but moved to another point, obviously considering the matter settled.

Once I sat down to put together the study programme for his course, I was faced with such a dilemma, that I nearly came to panic. I would not just need to select my warm-up texts carefully – no news reports from BBC, no success stories of Microsoft or Aston Martin, no quotes from Bill Gates, no personal stories of City brokers. That was the smallest of my problems.

As a top manager, he expected to learn quality Business English – by which he meant that language that sounded natural and demanded  respect. But part of sounding natural and demanding respect in English was to

  • say ‘I’m afraid I’m not making myself clear’ instead of ‘You’re getting the wrong point!’ – but that was the British habit of assuming the blame 
  • say ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea’ instead of ‘That’s nonsense!’ – but that was the British understatement;
  • start a business presentation with a joke or story – but that was again the British and / or American way of presenting;
  • use words or patterns like ‘unfortunately’, ‘rather’, ‘It seems to me that…’, ‘I’m afraid…’, ‘hardly’ etc – but that is just British reservation in making statements with a negative impact;
  • understand the difference between ‘cheap’ and ‘economical’, between ‘easy’ and ‘convenient’, or correctly understand the subtle implications of ‘challenge’, ‘assertive’, ‘awareness’, or ‘leadership’ for that matter – but these are Anglo-Saxon concepts;
  • assign tasks to subordinates in a number of ways, like  ‘I’d like you to write a report’, or ‘I need you to write a report’ but not, under normal circumstances, ‘Write a report!’ – yet that too is part of the English manner.

What was even more difficult for me to imagine was how to teach that manager quality English without my own enthusiasm about, and vision of, the values of the ‘English way’. I would put heart and soul into making him feel the English politeness, discretion, reservation, elegance, pragmatism, flexibility etc but that was sure to make him protest: ‘I don’t care about what the English do!’

What’s more, saying the right thing in English means acting the right way in English; you can’t say ‘Unfortunately I’m not available tomorrow’ if you don’t care about how you are giving bad news, and you can’t say ‘That’s not such a good idea’ unless you care to put it mildly. Speaking smart, natural English prompts you to behave like the English.

A language is a way of being. If you don’t like the English way of being you’ll be speaking a foreign English forever.

How do you feel about the English way? What ‘way of being’ would you like to be able to express naturally in the foreign languages that you speak?

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