English as a second language: help or hindrance?

29 October 2019

Over 23% of Australia’s workforce was born overseas in over 114 countries, giving us a rich and diverse pool of talent. Of these, 13% of workers were born in non-English speaking countries.1 Despite the many variations in first language, education and background, it is risky to assume that someone who was born and schooled in Australia, or who has English as their first language, will be a better writer than someone with English is a second language. We have come to this conclusion after 23 years of assessing the writing of thousands of employees at all levels of seniority in government and private organisations.

There are four main reasons for this.

  1. A person’s accent is not an indication of their writing ability. Generally, the older a person is when they start learning a foreign language, the more difficult it is for them to adopt an authentic accent in the new language. Difficulty understanding someone because of their accent can sometimes give the impression that their English is poor, including their writing skills. However, this is not always the case.
  2. A high level of education does not necessarily make someone a good writer. Getting high marks in English at school, or having a PhD, does not necessarily mean someone is able to communicate clearly in writing in the workplace. High school literary analysis and higher education academic writing are very different styles of writing from the plain English approach expected in business and government communications.  
  3. Some writing weaknesses transcend language. A highly educated person who has English as a first language may still have difficulty expressing themselves clearly in writing. Poor structure, long sentences and verboseness are common issues that reduce readability enormously. People with English as a first language, as well as those learning English as an additional language, frequently struggle with these aspects of writing.
  4. Everyone makes grammatical errors and typos. For those whose English is not their first language, certain grammatical concepts may be more difficult to grasp (e.g. Mandarin and some Slavic languages do not have an equivalent definite or indefinite article to the English ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’). Even people who have English as their first language make grammatical errors, and we all know how hard it is to spot typos.

Overcoming written communication barriers at work

If you have a valued employee who is not reaching the required standard in written communications you have several options, regardless of whether English is their first language.

Step 1. Assess team members’ training needs. The first step is to assess your team member’s writing and identify their weaknesses. Do their communications follow a logical structure? Are the sentences long and verbose? Do they have a tendency to over-use passive voice? What grammatical errors do they consistently make?

Step 2. Provide appropriate training. Some issues can be fixed quickly through a few hours of intensive, workshop-style group training. For those who have not learned English grammar, including how to structure sentences or use punctuation and tense correctly, a longer-term approach may be necessary. One-on-one help from a writing mentor can fast-track a team member’s learning as the mentor can hone in on areas of need.

Step 3. Give them good writing examples. As well as providing writing skills training, and continual feedback, encourage your team members to read good quality writing. Create a writing hub on your intranet with examples of good emails, reports, articles, training guides and cheat sheets to  give staff a benchmark. As long as they are reading good writing, their own writing skills will improve.

Step 4. Introduce a quality control process. For critical external communications, we recommend a rigorous quality control process where an independent team member, or external proofreader, checks and corrects grammar and other errors before transmittal.

It is unrealistic to expect all employees to be naturally good communicators in writing even if English is their first language. However, there is much you can do raise the level of your organisation’s written communications.  A willingness to learn, targeted intervention and plenty of practice for all staff can increase efficiency as well as enhance your organisation’s reputation.

 1 Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, 2011. Harmony in the workplace: delivering the diversity dividend http://fecca.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/factsheet-2-the-australian-workforce1.pdf

For help assessing your teams' writing ability, or to arrange a training program, contact Concise Writing Consultancy today on 02 9238 6638.

 

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