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  • Audrey Bevan

Don't correct my English

You may think that you are helping your colleague by correcting their English. The truth is, you are doing more damage than good, and this is why.

English is often the language used in multicultural workplaces. If you are a native speaker of English you have an advantage. You can use humour, expressions, and all the subtleties of the English language. You can also understand the meaning behind a tone or a reaction. And you barely have to think about it – you just know.

Your colleagues who are non-native speakers may have acquired a good level of English, but often they are still translating in their heads. Think about the effort this requires. They need to understand what you’re saying, which if you use plain English may be easy enough, but if you’re not, could be a tortuous process. They think in their native language. Then they choose the appropriate sentence structure, tense and words to express their thought in English. With this exercise comes the fear of getting it wrong, amplified by the perception that not expressing themselves well will penalise them.

Your colleagues have coping techniques. They usually use simple words and short sentences. They only speak when they really have to, and when they do it is very succinct. They may avoid group lunches or networking events because these activities are so exhausting for them.

So when they do speak it’s to say something that’s worth all of this effort. It is important! It’s important to them but it’s also important for the team’s performance. In my experience, the moment these colleagues voice their thinking is often a turning point in the discussion. It’s usually the moment where a different perspective emerges, sometimes it’s a useful challenge, and it’s always worth paying attention to it.

But when you correct their English you are negating all their effort. You’re focussing on the format rather than the content. To them it can feel like you are accentuating your advantage and knocking them down. Consequently, your colleague will either lose confidence and grow even quieter, or be annoyed at your lack of understanding, or both. In any case, none of it is conducive to a positive working relationship and it won’t lead to a great team performance.

If you want to value your colleague and encourage them, here are a few tips:

  • When in a group, ask them for their thoughts. This will make space for them to participate in the discussion.

  • When you don’t understand what they’re saying, ask them probing questions to clarify.

  • When you think you have understood what they’re saying, rephrase it and check your understanding.

  • Speak in plain English and say what you mean. Avoid expressions and acronyms.

  • Be curious about their language and culture.

There are jobs that require perfect English. But let’s be honest, most roles do not! As long as your colleague can understand you and you understand them that should be good enough. Your colleague brings a different way of thinking, a different point of view and that alone should be treasured in a team who wants to grow.


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