Fear and anxiety freeze our ability to speak in a foreign language, and there are many stressors in the workplace that can heighten that fear. Impatient coworkers are one such stressor. When coworkers refuse to have patience for someone who doesn’t speak “perfect” English, the result can actually negatively affect the speaker’s ability to communicate.
We recently heard from a client who said that one of his coworkers always harps on him for his language ability (or lack of). He gets very nervous whenever he has to speak in front of this person. Native speakers often don’t realize that the more pressure they put on the speaker, the worse the nonnative speaker’s language will sound!
This is a well-documented concept in second language acquisition theory. Doubt and anxiety decrease a learner’s ability to process the language, creating a “mental block” for language learning. [Krashen, S. (1988), Second Language Acquisition and Second Language, Prentice Hall]
What can be done about this? For the nonnative 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 something like, “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 nonnative speaker could use a language class as an excuse to open a dialog with the coworker. He can explain that he is working on his language, and explain what he is studying. We’ve seen situations in which a native-speaking colleague actually starts to take an interest in the improvement of the language learner.
For the native speaker, the goal is to ELIMINATE negative language like this:
-“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.”
This does nothing to help the learner improve his English, and can actually hinder improvement.
Such language should be replaced with language like this:
-“It’s impressive that you can do business in two languages.”
-“How is your English class going?”
Taking an interest in the nonnative speaker’s learning can foster a more relaxed and comfortable English language speaking experience for the learner. This, in turn, will help him become a better speaker.
A little patience can go a long way.