When employees are unwilling to be patient with coworkers who speak English as a second language, the result can be catastrophic for the second-language speaker’s language skills and confidence. Putting undue pressure on a second-language speaker hinders the learning process.
Second language acquisition theory tells us that doubt and anxiety decrease a learner’s ability to process a foreign language, creating a “mental block” to language learning. [Krashen, S. (1988), Second Language Acquisition and Second Language, Prentice Hall] Impatient coworkers are one avoidable source of doubt and anxiety.
What can be done?
For the English as a second language speaker, the solution may be to make his colleague aware of his challenges. He doesn’t have to say, “I don’t like to speak in front of you,” but he could say, “It makes me really nervous when I speak in front of you because I’m afraid I’m going to make a mistake.”
Or, the ESL speaker could use his language challenges as a way to open up dialogue with the coworker. He can explain, for example, that his native language doesn’t use verb tenses to signify time, so English verbs present a challenge. We’ve seen numerous situations in which a native-speaking colleague starts to take a sincere interest in the improvement of the second-language speaker.
For the native speaker, language that discourages or criticizes the ESL speaker without offering support or showing empathy should be avoided. Comments like these should be avoided:
“You’ve lived here X years. I can’t believe you don’t speak better.”
“Why can’t you say it like me? You listen to me every day.”
Comments like these do nothing to help the learner improve his English and can actually hinder improvement.
Such language could be replaced with affirming language like this:
“It’s impressive that you can do business in two languages.”
A little patience can go a long way.