Speaking English at work is one thing. The first big question I ask a new client is “can you tell me about your job?"

At least you can prepare for this. In a meeting, at least it's about a topic you know about (otherwise, you're in the wrong meeting!). And conversations like this are practiced in class.


We know that not all conversations in business are about work. All kinds of things can come up, from weather to traffic to those spoofy new iPhone earbuds (sorry, AirPods), but the English part of this is not a surprise. If we work with English speakers, it's no shock when they speak English with us.


The practice for this is a fundamental part of my English classes; to improve your confidence and fluency in and around the conversations you have at work.



Spontaneous conversations


These types of conversations are the ones that come out of the blue when you're minding your own business, when you're outside of work and someone you've never met before has the tenacity, the sheer gall, to expect you to use English.


This could happen if you're in an English-speaking country, but more likely it's when you're in your home country. Because these travelers, these visitors didn't have the decency to learn your language and now they're in a fix!


And now, they're the one like a fish out of water. They're the one feeling stupid. I know this for a fact, because I've done it so many times myself during my own travels. Britain and the United States tries to convince itself that the whole world speaks English, but there have been plenty times when it can't, and I'm left with my emergency foreign language skills. For example:


  • Speaking my emergency Italian in Florence to find out where on Earth I can buy matches to light my gas stove (not available in any supermarket, as it turns out).
  • My emergency German in Regensburg to protest about being short-changed in a department store (turns out that while my German was pretty good, my arithmetic was terrible).
  • My emergency French in Aix en Provence to explain to someone the best way to throw a bucket of water on a forest fire (in case you're wondering; doucement).
  • Using my emergency Dutch in Amsterdam to explain to a gentleman that I really, really didn't want to buy his merchandise.
  • Using my emergency Spanish in the United States, interrogating a guy I'd waved off a tractor to find out just who had the key to my locked classroom.


These were situations where I wasn't prepared, when I wasn't comfortable, and certainly when I wasn't fluent with the language -- but I had to come up with something! So embarrassment came second to the need and urgency of the situations. The desire to get my point across was above all my hesitations.


My English students could deal with those little adventures of mine. They’d all be fine; either they have the vocabulary or know how to use their Plan B and find another way to describe what they need or want.


Now, when you're in your home country, someone is going to ask, “Do you speak English?” Or they don’t even bother to ask. You can hear them, flailing, fighting against a communicational brick wall.


And sure, you could test their Russian, their Portuguese, or their Chinese. But you don't need the practice in your own language. You're not the confused and rattled tourist, you're the helper, you are their salvation.



So what do you do?


These types of situations will often happen on public transport, in a store or pharmacy, in your apartment building, in the street or at a restaurant. Basically anywhere where there are people.


The universe is presenting you with an opportunity. To help someone and to help yourself, to communicate and practice. But we don't always take advantage of our opportunities and I hear the following excuses all the time:


  • "I heard them speaking English but I didn't want to get involved”
  • "It was none of my business"
  • "I was too embarrassed"
  • "I didn't know the word for [X]"
  • "My English isn't good enough"


The thing is, if you're my client, then your English [would eventually] be good enough and I would expect you to take advantage of these real-life English opportunities; which is why I'm more likely these days (especially with clients I've worked with for a while) to hear instead: "I spoke English with a stranger yesterday!"


And come on, am I really going to reply, "That's nice" and then move on?


No, our session takes a back seat long enough for my client to tell me about:


  • Helping a man order an Uber taxi from an airport.
  • Helping someone get to grips with the most complicated coffee shop menu ever.
  • Helping someone get past the doorman of an apartment building because they want to view a rental apartment.
  • Helping someone buy a metro ticket with a hundred impatient commuters breathing down his neck.


I hear these examples, and so many more, and it's like, “Go team!", right? Because this is confidence. These interactions allow you to recognize the satisfaction and relief in communication as well as the joy and genuine pleasure in using English like this.


And this time the pressure is on the visitor. They need something from you. You're their salvation, and you're getting some unique English practice and experience at the same time….and it's free!!


My advice? Be brave, take a chance. Whether the person in need are tourists, workers, or visitors, they all need your help, they will be humble and grateful, and you know so much more of their language than they do of yours. These conversations are not a test, this is not about being perfect, it's about getting the tennis ball over the net.


And you don't have to seek these conversations out but don't shy away from them. This really is something for you to look forward to! This is like a reward for the hard work you've done in honing your English.


If you're tired of feeling judged every time you speak English with co-workers or clients, this is your chance to lift the pressure. And so what if if the worse happens - the ball doesn't make it over the net?...The stakes are so low -- you'll probably never see this person again. And you’ve acquired data, more experience; and sure, we can just blame it on their accent.


If you swing and miss it really doesn't matter.


Take pity on these folk who can't speak a word of your own language and enjoy the fact that it's your English that solves the problem.


See you in class!


Hero image by Alexis Brown (CC0 1.0)