Well…….no, actually, they don’t. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this way, simply because as we travel the world, a lot of people from other countries seem to speak English, at least enough to get by with tourists. The truth is that many people speak only their own local language or languages and even those who do speak English, do so with varying degrees of fluency.
It is, however, a fact that English as a global language is spreading. It is therefore easy to assume that since the number of English as a second language speakers is growing, very soon we will all understand each other across countries. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that as more and more people become ‘second language speakers’ of English, the capacity for misunderstanding grows.
How can this be, I hear you say? Well, largely because languages do not exist in a vacuum – they carry with them a whole lot of cultural knowledge, habits, behaviours and assumptions. The way we greet people, interact in daily life, understand implicit rules and, indeed, ‘view the world’ is all strongly influenced by our culture and cultural habits. When we learn another language, some of our existing cultural knowledge from our first language can be transferred – but a lot can’t. Or if it is transferred, it can be inappropriate or totally out of place and thus cause misunderstanding. Thus, speakers from different countries speaking a language that is not their native language can use the same words but have different assumptions about the meaning of what they are saying. In other words, they think they are communicating, but a lot of miscommunication may be taking place.
We often imagine this sort of situation occurs with two or small groups of speakers. The fact is that in today’s world, it is not unusual to have occasions where many speakers of different languages and cultural backgrounds are communicating in a common language, often English (for example, at an international conference). As a result, although everyone may be speaking English, each speaker’s command, understanding and fluency in the language may vary greatly so that it is difficult to know just how much communication is actually taking place and whether everyone is, in fact, receiving a common message.
So what can we do to ensure good communication in intercultural settings? Probably the first rule in this sort of context is for people to be good listeners and good observers of other people’s behaviour. Sometimes what people say and what they actually mean can be quite different. We need to keep in mind that in some cultures, it is not considered rude to openly disagree with someone else, while in other cultures it is. So, for example, if you are engaged in a business discussion where you would like your prospective partners to voice any concerns, you may have to get feedback in a more indirect way or give them more time to think about things, since they may be unlikely to give you a contrary opinion in a hurry. Indeed, in some cultures, socialising is considered a truly essential part of the business negotiation for this very fact. That is, some partners want to get to know you first on a social basis before they feel they can truly communicate their ideas to you.
So….. if you are preparing for an intercultural situation where you may not be sure about the other party’s thoughts, be very careful about taking any discussion literally. What people will say to you and what they actually mean will be influenced by their culture and cultural style of communication. Do some ‘homework’ and prepare yourself by learning something about the culture of the people you will be dealing with. This is very important if you really want to communicate and be sure you are understanding the intended message from the other party.