As a language learner, communication is your most important goal. In this and other articles in the series, I suggest ways to improve communication skills in English.
This is Part 2 of my series of articles on English in International Business, where communication has economic as well as personal implications, making it even more important to get right.
“Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and but one tongue-to the end that we should hear and see more than we speak.” This observation of Socrates has underpinned communication philosophy and training for thousands of years and you should keep in mind this message whenever you are communicating – in any language. In more a specific language learning context this will also help your understanding of the other person/people’s language, of course, in a number of ways, for example:
- it focuses your mind and attention on listening to what others are saying, rather than always thinking about what you are going to say next – this is tempting in your own language and a common cause of communication breakdown, but it is especially true when speaking a foreign language, where you have to think not just about what to say but the words and expressions you need to say it.
- by observing body language (facial expressions, hand gestures, etc) you will understand better how they feel, the motivation behind what they are saying, which is often very much more important than the actual contents. For example in the difficult case of irony and sarcasm (which although polite natives will try and avoid when talking to non-natives, is a deep-rooted trait in Britain, especially), a smile which accompanies what seems a strange or contrary thing to say, probably indicates the person is not being serious.
- length of sentence:
- short sentences could mean either a busy person (lesson: keep your message brief too!) or possibly a cold or angry sentiment, calling for tact and, if possible, polite questioning to ascertain the reason – if you get this impression you could simply ensure you add an opening or closing remark or question enquiring about their health or general well-being (as it is usually good to do when communicating in English); a simple “I hope you are well” or “I hope business is good”, etc.
- longer sentences could mean a more relaxed, chatty, temperament; read the contents carefully, though, as clearly the contents may indicate the contrary, for example a legalistic need to be unambiguous
- Punctuation: lots of exclamation marks (!) often indicate an enthusiastic, energetic personality; again, check the contents as if the message itself indicates discontentment, use of extreme punctuation indicates extreme discontentment! This is not common in business, though with electronic communications and business generally becoming less formal and more personal, I have observed much more of people’s personality in their “written” communications than in the past, especially through greater use of exclamation marks;
- Origin of writer: greater use of exclamation marks is also perhaps a result of the influence of cultures where greater physical gesturing is common, such as in mediterranen countries, so bear in mind where the person is from, and if it’s not obvious try and find out;
- Vocabulary: the wider the range of words and expressions used, generally the more educated and well-read the person is and probably more formal, though this will often be determined by the context
- Accuracy: clearly this will be harder for non-natives, but you should be able to notice at least basic spelling/typing errors, which either indicate a genuine dyslexia, a lack of education or simply a lack of care in writing (or a combination of all three); watch out for other signs
- Increase your input. Logically, to improve your output (speaking and writing) you first need to increase the amount of input you receive. It is important on a regular basis to reading books or news (online or offline), watch TV and films in the original language, and even listen to music, a fun way of improving listening comprehension, which is, of course, half of communication. Reading this article is itself means you are already on the right track!
- Participate in discussion forums. This is a great way of practising in a friendly, supportive and informal environment. Clearly you do not want to pick up bad habits from other non-natives, but it is a good “testing ground”. There are also a great many forums actually dedicated to helping you improve communication skills in English, offering advice from experts and natives on topics from specific words and expressions or professional correspondence (www.wordreference.com/forums is good for both) to more general discussions on language and translation (like www.englishpage.net or the professional translators network, www.proz.com). Even better, participate in forums on sites designed for natives, where you will pick up a lot of new, natural language, though clearly it is usually very informal, especially on more social subjects, and there is a lot of internet language which is inappropriate for many communication situations. But it is the next best thing to actually going to a social event in an English-speaking country and you can go back to the other forums like Wordreference to check on that language!
- Social and professional networking. A natural extension to discussion forums is to connect with people all over the world (perhaps people you meet in the forums!) via the many social and professional networking websites, from facebook to LinkedIn and Google+. Depending on your focus – personal or professional, you will get lots of input from your new friends who will also help you more than strangers, of course, and whom you can ask direct questions on whether a certain expression you have seen or heard is suitable in a certain context.
- Organise meet-ups in English. There really is no substitute for face-to-face meetings, so try to find other learners locally who are keen to improve communication skills in English – obviously if you can find and persuade natives to join you (that’s how I met my (ex-)wife!) that will make the whole thing even more valuable as you will get instant feedback. Simply getting together in a relaxed environment, as regularly as possible, will massively help your confidence and fluency.
For more ideas, see my article “How can I improve my English” which looks at improvement and learning generally, including some personal development advice to help guide your study and practice. Committing to regular action and activity is crucial if you really want to improve communications skills in English, so you should read that article too. Why not practise communicating right now by leaving a comment on this page?! (Spam will not be published.)
Thanks for reading and good luck!