Call it coincidence, destiny, fate, kismet—in one moment, lives can collide and change forever. Sunita Sehmi and Rodica Rosu might call their encounter on the University of Geneva’s Masters of Advanced Studies in Human Resources and Career Management course, serendipity. One was originally from India, the other from Romania. Both girls were there to learn and develop their skills, but did not expect to discover their professional alter ego. The academic program was entirely in French, a foreign language for both of them, plus the two girls were one of the very few non-native French speakers in the group. During the course they both realized that they had surprisingly similar backgrounds and views on how people understand each other through different languages and cultural prisms. It was for this reason that they decided to explore the issue in their thesis: “How does proficiency in English affect French native speakers at work?”
Evidently, English as an international business language has become instrumental in social and economic empowerment, and consequently, the demand for English has escalated, which translates into more jobs requiring a good level of English proficiency. A case in point is the Swiss context: The Swiss economy is one of the most competitive in the world and attracts an important number of multinational corporation headquarters who tend to employ a significant number of locals. A large majority of them have adopted the English language as their lingua franca, especially in the Suisse Romande.
The main purpose of our research was to explore and investigate how nonnative professionals manage English in their everyday work. In addition, we wanted to gain a deeper insight into how proficiency in English affects nonnatives at work. Although English is used every day in some Swiss companies, non-natives who share the same language seldom use English with one another outside work, implying that English is still primarily a lingua franca and not a language of everyday communication. According to the report, Swiss people use English to speak or write for work and as a tool of broader communication, but for most it is not a language used in the family setting or with friends.
This led us to explore the impact of English on non-native professionals working in the French part of Switzerland. The study investigates how local French-native speaking professionals cope with English in every day work situations and how their proficiency in English affects them at work.
We analysed the data gathered from 37 interviews with both Swiss and French top and middle management professionals from 25 companies across the French-speaking part of Switzerland and this is what we discovered.
The “Achilles’ heel” small talk
Our study showed that there was a clear difference in proficiency between professional and social English, i.e. small talk. This lack of proficiency caused stress and anxiety among non-native professionals, especially in meetings, lunch or coffee breaks and informal discussions. Furthermore, non-natives felt they were linguistically disadvantaged during small talk and at times they reported to be “left out” of important conversations. In addition, non-natives specified that English-natives shared collective cultural customs that they did not identify with, confirming that small talk is not only a language issue but a cultural one as well.
The use of English was perceived as disruptive by some individuals and said to have a negative impact on non-native well-being. Well over 80% of respondents agreed that working in a foreign language did not allow them to fully exploit their professional skills because they did not dare to intervene as much as they would have in their own language. Furthermore, we saw from our findings that non-natives often felt the emotional repercussions of lingua franca dominance at work and that there was a form of resignation on the part of non-natives, a kind of “submission” to the power of the natives.
The “power” of the natives Communicating in English in an English- speaking professional environment put native speakers in a position of superiority over their non-native colleagues. It was reported that Anglophones had a kind of “power” over non-natives at work and that their language competence was at times perceived as being more valuable than professional / technical knowledge or skills.
There were various cultural components that played a major role: accents, idioms, metaphors, and differences in cultural communication styles between natives and non-natives. Besides this, nonnatives were observed to have communicated better among themselves b ecause English was not their mother tongue. Therefore they had to ensure that when they communicated, the message they gave was clear. They also tended to speak slower and used less complex vocabulary.
Firstly in this study, we discovered that social English is perceived as an important part of working life and that non-natives feel particularly vulnerable when called upon to operate in English outside the parameters of their job. Secondly, English is a must for nonnatives and a clear relationship was found to be true between their performance, well-being and language proficiency. At all levels it is perceived that a low level of English proficiency prevents career development.
Thirdly, there are various linguistic components that play a major role: accents, idioms, metaphors, as well as different cultural communication styles between natives and non-natives which can have a detrimental impact on communication and confidence.
This is only the beginning…
Having successfully integrated into and assimilated several cultures, Sunita and Rodica forged a common bond; they continue their work beyond the realms of university.
They merged their know-how and are driven by the sole purpose of helping organisations with their language, communication and intercultural issues. Their theoretical knowledge coupled with hands-on experience of both local and global environments is something that sets these two girls apart.
The authors are happy to offer advice and solutions and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Recommendations for Swiss Leaders and HR. Give me five!
So what is the future for Swiss companies? How do they better prepare themselves and their staff? We suggest these five simple tips to start off with.
- English language development needs to be more focused on small talk.
- The introduction of an in-house language mentoring system is recommended.
- A regular assessment and evaluation of linguistic progress is essential.
- Intercultural training and crosscultural communication knowledge is key.
- English-native leaders must “Walk The Talk” and build bridges between natives and non-natives.
Article by Sunita Sehmi & Rodica Rosu Fridez