Systems at Work: Recognizing Patterns in Business EnglishJan 09, 2023
Everything can sound new and confusing when you’re learning a new language – especially when it comes to a language like English which very often does not follow its own rules. Luckily, for us engineers, there are systems.
One of the first things I do with my engineers who are learning Business English is help them to understand these systems. The only problem? Language isn’t static. No one English speaker follows the same system, but that can work to your advantage.
Recently, I sat down with Andrea Zimmerl on my podcast, English for Engineers. Andrea has worked in tech, communication, and dog training(!) over the span of her eclectic career. As a communication expert, especially in international settings, Andrea has learned that systems keep her from communication errors, even when coaching people from different cultures.
While we spoke about a lot of different topics during our conversation, I wanted to highlight systems. What they are, how they can help you, and how to notice if someone is operating from a different language system than you’re used to.
What Is a System?
A system is a set of principles that are followed when something it’s done. It’s just a set of rules. As engineers, the idea of systems is enticing. We like to work with predictable systems.
So, when we’re talking about learning technical English, it’s easy to immediately think of the grammar book, but that’s not the only set of rules that English follows. There are many systems to the English language. The main systems are grammar, vocabulary, phonology and discourse. Here's the beauty of recognising systems: it's simple to recognise what you're already good at and where you need to improve your Business English or Technical English.
There are also communication systems that, once you get the basics of the language down, are even more important in international settings.
While learning sets of rules can build a foundation, you’re not learning a language unless you put the systems to use. This is when systems become a skill. When we learn English together, we work on understanding the system and practising the skill, which is often quite different from how we learned in school.
Once you learn the system and understand it, you can play around with it. When you’re really good, you can twist the system, e.g. intentionally breaking the rules, like using local slang ('my bad' instead of 'sorry').
English Systems Are Unique
Learning how to twist systems like a native speaker requires a deep understanding of the rules of the language. The important thing when learning Business English is to understand the system so well that you can break the rules. That’s when the real fun of language happens.
You can’t break any old rule. You first have to learn the system. Some systems in English simply can’t be broken. For example, when you have multiple adjectives in English, they’re listed in a specific order. It’s extremely rare for a native speaker to change this grammar/syntax rule. The order is opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, and purpose. So, you can say “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” but “My Greek big fat wedding” is wrong.
On the other hand, there are many instances when English doesn’t follow the rules – especially in spoken English, even in business settings.
Add on the many different English dialects, and every English speaker follows their own unique system. The rules an Australian follows will look very different from the rules an Indian English speaker follows, for example.
As a non-native speaker of English, you’ll have your own way of speaking that’s unique to you. Whether that’s your accent or something else, remember that no native English speaker sounds the same. How we speak is individual to us – even in a business setting. So, remember, as long as others understand what you’re communicating, the business English system you’re using is working.
How To Notice Different Systems
As a non-native speaker of English working in international settings, all this rule-breaking gets confusing. Even worse, it can lead to miscommunication. So, how do you uncover the unique communication system someone is operating from? Here is what Andrea recommends.
Open up to what others are saying
When you’re uncomfortable with a language, it’s easy to focus on saying what you need to say. It can take a lot of effort to speak your sentences. So much so that you don’t notice what others are saying – both with their voice and body language. Except you can’t just flop out your info and leave. You have to be open to others’ reactions.
Notice body language
Similarly, noticing body language can help you understand a different communication system. That’s why Andrea always recommends zoom calls instead of ordinary phone calls. In international settings, it is important to be able to notice different communication systems in as many ways as possible. Remember, though, that body communication might differ from your own. That’s why taking it slow, truly listening, and watching are so important.
Don’t ignore gut feelings
I know as an engineer, we want to follow facts and figures. But when it comes to communication, our gut feeling is usually right. When you feel like someone doesn't understand you or something seems wrong, you should check in with them. Even if things are going well, it's a good idea to check in occasionally. Andrea says she can almost always tell when a conversation isn’t in alignment, and you will be able to do this as well if you listen to your gut feelings.
Most people are open-minded
If you’re working in an international setting, chances are people are used to slowing down, asking for clarification, and looking for signs of your communication system. In our digital age, understanding the systems at play in any setting is essential for a successful work environment. Perfect language skills aren’t expected, but an openness to learn and understand one another is.
One more thing can help you recognise systems at work. Business English training can help you improve your language proficiency and build the confidence you need to communicate effectively in international engineering environments. Learn more about ESL* solutions here.
Curious about what else Andrea had to say? Listen to the podcast Vienna waits for you on Spotify, or wherever you usually listen to your favourite podcasts.
*English as a second language