English is the international language of business, which means that many work environments require at least some knowledge of the language. If you’re a non-native speaker working with native English speakers, you may have no choice but to practice English at work every day. However, using English at work doesn’t have to be a pain.
However, having to speak English at work can be a blessing in disguise. Many people who speak English as a second language don’t have the opportunity to practice every day. If you have to work in an English-speaking environment, you’re obligated to make English a part of your daily routine. So, count yourself lucky and take advantage of the opportunity to practice and learn as much as possible.
Read on to learn what steps you can take to learn English at work!
Top 10 Ways to Learn English at Work
If you work in an English-speaking environment, you probably know how to have a simple conversation in English (at the very least). However, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to learning a second language. Even native English speakers make mistakes!
Improving your English can help you socialize with your coworkers, impress your boss, and even perform your job better. So, here are a few ways to effectively practice and learn English at work:
1. Don’t Get Stuck on Autopilot
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “autopilot” refers to a device that allows a vehicle to drive or operate itself. However, when a person is “stuck on autopilot,” it means that they are doing things without thinking. If you’re stuck on autopilot, you don’t change your behavior to fit the situation. Instead, you simply do things automatically without using your brain!
This is especially common when a person feels insecure about their English-speaking abilities. For example, if you know how to talk about the weather in English, you might want to talk about the weather with your coworkers as much as possible. This is a natural reaction because talking about the weather feels comfortable and familiar to you. However, this is a bad choice.
First of all, talking about the weather all the time would be very boring! Both you and your coworkers will want to talk about other things after a while. So, when you find yourself wanting to talk about the same things over and over again, push yourself to find new topics. Don’t let yourself get stuck on autopilot! If you need new things to talk about, check out this guide to making small talk at work.
2. Focus on the Basics First
It’s important to practice making small talk and casual conversation at work. However, if you struggle with the English related to your professional responsibilities, small talk should not be your number one concern. Instead, focus on the English that you need to know to do your job.
If you already know enough English to do your job well, great! You don’t need to worry about this step. However, if there is a technical language or ways of communicating that you still don’t understand (but need to understand), you must learn them first. The easiest way to identify gaps in your work-related English is to simply do your job.
As you work, take note of areas where you failed to communicate effectively or had difficulties fulfilling your responsibilities due to gaps in your English. How could you have done better? What list of business English words do you need to study and memorize? How quickly can you learn enough English to avoid similar mistakes in the future?
While it’s important to focus on the basic English you need for your job, you shouldn’t stop there. Some people might feel that, as long as they can do their jobs, they don’t need to study anymore. This is rarely true. In a work environment, you will almost always get curveballs (unexpected situations) that will require you to use your English skills.
3. Make Practicing English at Work Your Second Job
Your boss hired you for a reason. Regardless of your position or job title, you have certain responsibilities at work, so fulfilling your work responsibilities should always be your number one priority.
That being said, if you work in an English-speaking environment, learning English should be your number TWO priority. You should treat practicing and speaking English at work as your second job. As long as learning English doesn’t cause you to shirk (avoid) your work duties, your boss will probably be very pleased that you want to improve your English!
Try treating each workday like an English class. When you hear a new phrase or word, write it down on a notebook or a document on your work computer. More importantly, when you get the opportunity to speak in English, use it! Speaking English at work is the best way to improve your abilities and gain confidence as an English speaker.
4. Speak Until You Are Understood
If you speak English for long enough, you will eventually have to deal with confusion and misunderstandings. Maybe you used the wrong word or said something in a confusing way. Sometimes it is no fault of your own; maybe the other person just wasn’t paying attention.
In any case, you shouldn’t just give up when someone at work doesn’t understand you. Instead, experiment with different ways to express the same thought.
More often than not, native English speakers will be able to deduce what you mean if you try to explain yourself more than once. This also forces your brain to be pragmatic (practical) when using English at work. It allows you to see where you’re making mistakes so that you can fix them in the future.
This is difficult for many non-native speakers, as it can feel daunting (intimidating) to continue speaking after making a mistake. However, it’s important not to give up. You’ll feel much better knowing that the other person understood you, even if it takes a few tries!
5. Listen Until You Understand
A conversation is a two-way street. In other words, you speak to a person and they speak back. As a result, you shouldn’t only care about making yourself understood; you also need to care about understanding the other person.
Let’s face it, native English speakers don’t always make it easy for non-native speakers. You may not want to constantly interrupt a conversation with questions, though you should never be afraid to ask for clarification (more on that a little later). So, the best remedy is to listen.
This sounds like obvious advice, but most people don’t listen as well as they should. When you’re listening to someone speak a different language from your own, you have to listen even more intently (carefully). Make sure to keep your mind focused whenever the other person or people are speaking.
A coworker may begin speaking to you and you start feeling like you’re trying to play catch-up. Don’t stress. More often than not, the other person will give you information that helps put the entire conversation in context. For more help listening to coworkers in English, check out this guide on improving listening comprehension.
6. Prepare Yourself for Common Situations
Do you work in an office? Do you frequently speak with people over the phone? Are you required to write emails to your coworkers? To make the most out of practicing English at work, you will need to consider how you use English in your workplace.
Naturally, the type of situations you encounter will vary based on your industry, job title, and even the country in which you work. That said, several situations and activities overlap in a wide range of jobs.
Using English at Work: 6 Common Situations
Here are a few of the most common situations and activities that you might encounter at work:
- Formal emails – Generally, writing emails is one of the easier ways to communicate with coworkers (or clients) in English. You can use spell-check to correct mistakes, reread what you’ve written, and even have a coworker read over everything (if it’s a very important email) to make sure that it’s free of errors. Workplace emails are typically formal, which means that you will need to be careful with the format and word choice.
- Introducing yourself – If you stay at any company or organization for long enough, you’re bound to see coworkers or clients come and go. This means that you will need to be ready to introduce yourself to new people when necessary. Fortunately, introductions don’t need to be long-winded or complex. Just smile, be friendly, and act professional!
- Asking for help – This is a very common issue with non-native speakers. You encounter a problem with your work, but you don’t know how to explain it to someone else. If language fails you, try to show someone the problem so that they can see the issue for themselves.
- Offering help – If you want coworkers to help you when you need it, it’s a good idea to offer help in return. Fortunately, this is relatively easy to do. Just let your coworkers know that you are available if and when they need your assistance.
- Group meetings – Group meetings present a difficult situation for non-native speakers. Sometimes, the meeting follows a strict agenda; other times it’s not as organized. You might encounter a free-for-all meeting in which everyone can pitch ideas or contribute to the conversation. Either way, don’t be afraid to speak up when the moment arises!
- Phone calls – Phone calls vary based on the context. Some phone calls are very straightforward, while others can be long, complicated, and confusing. It doesn’t help that you can’t see the other person’s facial expressions and body language. Nonetheless, you should always aim to keep a professional tone whenever you speak over the phone at work.
Once you’ve figured out which situations and activities apply to your job, you can begin to prepare speaking English in these scenarios. This may require you to practice outside of work, but it will be well worth it. Practicing business English scenarios in advance will help you feel more confident when they come up at work!
7. Ask Plenty of Questions
Even if coworkers always (or almost always) understand you, you may not always understand them. Native English speakers usually speak very quickly, blend words, and use lots of English idioms. As a result, understanding everything you hear at work can be a challenge.
Unfortunately, many employees are hesitant to ask questions at work for fear of looking unprepared or unqualified for their job. However, this fear is usually unwarranted. Asking questions at work is a vital part of learning and performing your job effectively. It’s even more important for non-native speakers who need to speak English at work.
If you’re confused, don’t be afraid to say so. There’s no shame in telling someone that you don’t understand. If you stay quiet and don’t say anything, it may come back to bite you later on, as people will just assume that you understood the first time. So, to avoid any embarrassment, ask questions, and get clarification whenever you need it!
8. Learn and Practice the Lingo
Every workplace has a distinct lingo (way of talking). Some companies use confusing business terms like “synergy” (cooperation) or “bandwidth” (availability), while others might use more traditional language like “memo” (a written message) or “impact” (affect). In any case, you’ll need to adjust to the language of your company or industry.
Not only will you need to learn what certain words mean, but you’ll also need to practice using them. Some lingo may work in a certain context, but not in another. It’s helpful to observe how and when your coworkers use unfamiliar language. And remember, don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something!
Common Business Lingo
Since business lingo can be particularly confusing (even native English speakers use some of these idioms incorrectly), we’ve provided a list of common phrases you might hear in the workplace. While every business is different, these words and phrases will give you an idea of what to expect in a business or corporate environment:
- Think outside the box – (verb phrase) – To be creative; to come up with new and interesting ideas.
- I want you to think outside the box for our next marketing campaign.
- Move the needle – (verb phrase) – To make a noticeable difference.
- We’ll have to take a different approach if we want to move the needle.
- Unpack – (verb) – To examine closely.
- Let me unpack these ideas and get back to you later.
- Incentivize – (verb) – To give an incentive for someone to take a certain action.
- How can we incentivize consumers to buy our products?
- Deliverable – (noun) – The result of a project (usually a product or service).
- We need to specify our deliverables before we proceed.
- The bottom line – (noun phrase) – The total amount or cost; the outcome.
- We can’t ignore the bottom line if we want to make any money.
- Wheelhouse – (noun) – Area of expertise; specialty.
- Digital Marketing is my wheelhouse.
9. Find a ‘Work Buddy’
Improving your English at work will require you to socialize. For some people, this may be a bit difficult. An introvert (shy person) typically doesn’t like to socialize a lot. If this describes you, you might have to push yourself to find a ‘work buddy’ with whom you can practice English.
Additionally, some jobs don’t make it easy to practice English. Perhaps you work remotely and only communicate with coworkers via email (at least you can practice your writing skills), or maybe you work in a loud environment, like a construction site. Loud work environments make it difficult to hold conversations.
This is where a ‘work buddy’ can come in handy. Even if your personality or workplace doesn’t make it easy to start a conversation, a work buddy can help ease social anxiety and take social interaction outside of the workplace. With a work buddy, you can have short, friendly conversations in English throughout the workday or even organize a get-together after work.
10. Don’t Leave English at Work
For non-native speakers who work in an English environment, it’s tempting to switch off the “English” part of your brain when you clock out (leave work). This is not a weakness. Learning English can feel exhausting at times, and everyone needs a break once in a while.
That being said, you shouldn’t just leave English at work. Try to learn English at home or during your free time. If you want to learn to speak English fluently, you’ll need to practice in different environments. If you live in an English-speaking country, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice outside of work, like ordering food at a restaurant or talking to people at a social event.
Even if you don’t live in an English-speaking country, you can still practice English outside of your work hours. Learning English online is the most accessible way to improve your English skills, and there’s so many online options to choose from! You can watch movies, listen to music, listen to podcasts, watch Youtube videos, and read articles — all on your computer or smartphone.
So, even if it’s tempting to only speak English at work, try to work in as much English as you can in your free time. You won’t regret it!
Learning to communicate in English at work can be a challenge for non-native speakers, but with practice and experience, you become more confident in your English skills. Just remember to ask questions, take notes, and use English whenever the opportunity arises!