Become an English at Work Expert: 11 Must-know Tips for Successfully Using Business English
We’re going to help you love speaking English at work.
This article will give you 11 tips for using English at work like a pro. You’ll discover how to master business English and succeed in your job despite language barriers in the workplace.
You’ve made it this far, so you can definitely handle this!
- 1. Carry a Workplace English Notebook with You
- 2. Don’t Just Use English at Work—Talk with Your Co-workers Outside of Work
- 3. Learn Slang and Idioms, Especially Those Relevant to Your Job
- 4. It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Understand” and Ask for Help
- 5. If Your Co-workers Didn’t Understand You at First, Try Saying It a Different Way
- 6. Say “I Want to Ask a Question” Before You Ask a Question
- 7. Be Mindful of Intonation
- 8. Practice Common Scenarios with a Native Speaker
- 9. If You Don’t Understand an Explanation, Ask for a Demonstration
- 10. Don’t Lose Your Personality!
- 11. Don’t be Shy or Embarrassed When Speaking English at Work, Just Do Your Best
1. Carry a Workplace English Notebook with You
Buy yourself a small pocket notebook that you carry around with you at all times. Whenever you hear a word you don’t understand, write it down so you can look it up later.
Similarly, if you have a friend who is a native English speaker in the office, ask them if they can help you understand any of these new words and phrases. It’s a great way to start a conversation and meet a new friend.
You can also use your phone for this, but pausing mid-sentence to type something into your phone looks less professional than writing in a notebook. The other person may think you’re texting—and that’s a huge no-no in any workplace scenario!
2. Don’t Just Use English at Work—Talk with Your Co-workers Outside of Work
If your co-workers go for a drink or dinner after work, join them. If they invite you to lunch—say yes. Even if you are shy, it’s helpful to talk to your co-workers outside of work. This way, you will become more familiar with how they communicate and speak.
They too will become more familiar with your accent and the way you speak. Overall, making a friendship makes it easier to ask for help later.
3. Learn Slang and Idioms, Especially Those Relevant to Your Job
Every job, company and industry has their “jargon,” or set of vocabulary and idioms that are specific to that job, company or industry.
Be sure to make extra effort to learn the jargon, slang and idioms that your co-workers use often so you can understand them better, and communicate with them better. Reading sections of the news relevant to your job is a great place to start. Knowing general slang words will also help you in day-to-day small talk.
A fantastic resource where you can learn authentic business English is FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Perhaps the most interesting part of FluentU is its “learn mode.” Learn mode takes your learning history into account, asking questions based on what you already know, which sets you up for success. It’s such an effective way to learn new words and phrases, and is unlike any other language learning software out there.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store.
Be sure to use the words you learn, as this will also make others more confident that you know what you are talking about, and more confident in talking to you!
4. It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Understand” and Ask for Help
Most bosses and co-workers will prefer you say “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know what you just said” than pretend like you understand. Not admitting that you didn’t get something will cause problems later, and honesty is important for good workplace communication.
Get comfortable with saying “I don’t understand.” Ask your co-worker/boss to slow down, repeat it a different way or demonstrate what they wanted to explain (if possible). When possible, repeat what you think they said and ask if it was correct.
Eventually, most of these new words will become familiar and you will ask for help less and less often.
Examples of what to say:
- Sorry, I didn’t understand. Can you explain that again?
- I’m not sure I understood, could you [show me/demonstrate] how to do this task?
- Sorry, could you please repeat that slower?
- Could you please say that again slowly?
- I think you mean _____. Is that correct?
5. If Your Co-workers Didn’t Understand You at First, Try Saying It a Different Way
You know the situation. You start explaining something to a co-worker or boss, and when you are finished, they shake their head and say “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.”
When that happens, don’t just repeat what you said again—try explaining your idea in a different way. Use different vocabulary and examples if you can.
For example, if you said at first “How do I fix this error?” but maybe mispronounced something, say instead, “There is a mistake, how can I correct it?” Sometimes, it also helps to simplify your language the second time around.
Be extra obvious and the first explanation may just “click” (make sense) for your co-worker.
6. Say “I Want to Ask a Question” Before You Ask a Question
Since you’re speaking a foreign language, there’s a chance you speak slower than usual or have not yet mastered intonations.
So, when you ask a question in English at work, begin by saying “I want to ask a question.” If you have an idea you want to explain, say “I have an idea” before telling the person about it. If you want to explain something, say “Let me explain, please.”
This way, your co-workers will know not to interrupt you until your question, idea or explanation is finished. They will also know to give you an answer or response afterwards.
Especially when you are still becoming comfortable using workplace English around new people, this communication strategy is very helpful.
7. Be Mindful of Intonation
Similarly, be aware of your intonation when speaking. Especially if intonation in English is very different from your native language, you will need to pay attention to these details in order to have successful communication.
For example, if you ask a question and forget to raise your pitch at the end, the person you’re speaking to may not know to answer you.
If you say something with no intonation—very flatly—your co-workers may think you are bored or uninterested. They may not know how to read your emotions and that can cause problems in the workplace.
8. Practice Common Scenarios with a Native Speaker
When you first begin your job, find a native speaking friend or teacher and practice common work scenarios with them. This is called “role playing” and it’s a commonly used technique in language classrooms.
This will help you feel more comfortable speaking in English at work. You will be able to think about how you want to phrase certain ideas in a non-stressful environment. And most importantly, your friend can correct your mistakes while you’re practicing, so you won’t make them later.
Some common business English scenarios to practice (this may vary depending on your profession/industry):
- Asking for help/explanations
- Writing emails
- Giving an overview of what you accomplished for the week
- Calling clients
- Discussing projects, project timelines and budgets in depth
- Small talk
- Job interviews
If you can’t find a real-life native speaker to practice with, many interactive websites for ESL learners will help you simulate the experience.
9. If You Don’t Understand an Explanation, Ask for a Demonstration
When someone at work explains a new concept or task to you, ask them to demonstrate it (if possible).
For example, if they want you to use a new website, ask them to sit with you on the computer and use it together. You could ask:
- Could you show me how?
- Could we do an example once together?
- Do you have time to show me how to do _____?
- Do you have an example of a past [email/report /etc.] I could see?
Even if you understand all or most of what they are saying, seeing a new activity in action will help you remember the explanation later, and it will minimize confusion.
10. Don’t Lose Your Personality!
You are not a robot. You are a person, and you have a wonderful personality (I’m sure!). So let your co-workers and boss get to know your fabulous personality.
It can be easy to worry so much about whether or not you are speaking English correctly that you forget to relax. You forget to make jokes. You forget to talk about things that make you happy. You forget to let others see your personality.
Don’t do this! Try to remember to add your personality to your conversations and let your co-workers get to know the real you.
11. Don’t be Shy or Embarrassed When Speaking English at Work, Just Do Your Best
In the end, the most important thing is to just try your best. Don’t worry about the little errors when speaking to co-workers. The most important thing is to be understood—even if you accidentally use the wrong tense or say something a little strangely!
As a non-native speaker, you will make mistakes, and that’s okay. Your boss and co-workers know that, and they should be helpful and understanding about it. If they aren’t, maybe you’re in the wrong workplace. Best of luck!
Speaking English at work doesn’t have to be scary. With these 11 tips to learn business English, you’re well on your way to fluent workplace English.