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By Sunita Sehmi and Rodica Rosu Fridez

English as an international business language has become instrumental in social and economic empowerment, and consequently the demand for English has escalated resulting in more jobs necessitating a good level of English proficiency.

According to the study “The Linguistic Landscape of Switzerland” conducted by the FSO (Federal Statistical Office 2009), the English-speaking expatriate population is growing significantly. It is accepted that the range of languages spoken in both private and professional environments in Switzerland has grown; thus propelling the usage of English as THE reference language.

The EPI (English Proficiency Index) stipulates that many Swiss companies are now operating internationally and “as the power of English in the workplace is rising” most companies want employees to be skilled in English. The EPI rank Switzerland as having a moderate proficiency score, (54.06), adding that the presence of other national languages does not result in a weakening of English proficiency. (EPI Report, 2011) Many of the multinationals in the French-speaking part of Switzerland have adopted English as their corporate language and within the next couple of years it is expected that about one in every two top managers in Swiss companies will hail from overseas (Allen, 2012).

Although English is used every day in some Swiss companies, non-natives sharing the same language seldom use English with one another outside work. This confirms that English is still primarily a lingua franca in business and not a language used for everyday communication. According to the report, Swiss people use English to speak or write for work and as a tool for wider communication, but for many it is not a language used in the family setting or with friends. Virginie Borel, head of the Bilingualism Forum in Biel agrees, she says, “English is a very important language but it is a lingua franca, it does not belong to our culture...” (Borel, 2012)

The main purpose of our research was to explore and investigate how non-native professionals manage English in their every day work. In addition, we wanted to gain a deeper insight into how proficiency in English affects non-natives at work.

These concerns gave birth to our thesis title, “How does proficiency in English affect French native speakers at work?” Our study attempted to highlight the trials and tribulations of being a non-native professional working in an English-speaking organisation based in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. We wanted to find out how local French-native speaking professionals cope with English in every day work and how their proficiency in English affects them at work?

We analysed the data gathered from 37 interviews, (Swiss and French top to middle management executives), from 25 companies across the French-speaking part of Switzerland. This is what we found.

The "Achilles’ heel” Small talk
Our study showed that there was a clear difference in proficiency between professional and social English i.e. small talk. This lack of proficiency caused stress and anxiety among non-native professionals, especially in meetings, lunch or coffee breaks and informal discussions. Furthermore, non-natives felt they were linguistically disadvantaged during small talk and at times they reported feeling "left out" of important conversations. Equally, non-natives specified that English-natives shared collective cultural customs that they could not identify with. This confirms that small talk is not just a language issue but a cultural one too.

Emotional outcomes on well-being
The use of English was perceived as disruptive by some individuals and thus, as having a negative impact on non-native well-being. Well over 80% of respondents agreed that working in a foreign language did not allow them to fully exploit their professional skills, because they did not dare to intervene as much as they would have in their own language. Furthermore, we saw from our findings that non-natives often felt the emotional repercussions of English as a lingua franca dominance at work and there was a form of resignation on the part of non-natives; a kind of "submission" to the power of the natives.

The "Power" of the natives
Communicating in English in an English-speaking professional environment puts native speakers in a position of superiority over their non-native colleagues. It was reported that language competence was at times perceived to be more valuable than professional /technical knowledge or skills.

Non-native Communication
There were various cultural components, which played a major role: e.g. accents, idioms, metaphors, as well as differences in cultural communication styles between natives and non-natives. Besides this, it was noted that non-natives communicated better with each other because English was not their mother tongue. Therefore they had to ensure that, when they communicated, the message they gave was clear. They also tended to speak more slowly, and use less complex vocabulary.

First and foremost this study revealed that social English was perceived as an important feature of working life and that non-natives felt particularly vulnerable when required to operate in English outside the parameters of their job.

Secondly, English is a must for non-natives and a clear relationship was found between their performance, well-being and language proficiency. At all levels it was perceived that a low level of English proficiency is detrimental to career development.

Thirdly, there were various linguistic components that played a major role, e.g. accents, idioms, metaphors, as well as different cultural communication styles between natives and non-natives that can have a negative/ impact on communication and confidence.

Recommendations for Swiss Leaders, Managers and Human Resources Professionals
So what is the future for Swiss companies? How can they better prepare themselves and their staff? We suggest these five simple tips to start off with:

1.    English language development needs to be more focused on small talk.
2.    The introduction of an in-house language mentoring system is proposed.
3.    Intercultural training and cross-cultural communication knowledge is essential.
4.    English-natives leaders must “Walk The Talk “and build bridges between natives and non-natives.
5.    Support for non-natives by providing them with appropriate coping strategies* (Some examples of coping strategies can be seen on the SR Communication website)

Our sincere thanks to our Director PROF. DR. Eric Davoine, Chair Human Resources and Organization University of Fribourg

Reference: “How does proficiency in English affect French native speakers at work? A qualitative research conducted in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.”

If you would like a copy of the thesis please feel free to contact us at SR Communication, www.sr-communication.com. Or email us at
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sunita blogphoto 150

Sunita has a passion for helping individuals, teams and companies to maximize their potential. With over 20 years experience both in the UK & Switzerland, she created Walk The Talk, with the sole aim, to help professionals improve their Business Communication Skills. She is of Indian origin but was born and raised in Britain before she moved to Geneva in 1991. She has a Psychology background, (specializing in Occupational Psychology) and a Post Graduate in the Development and Training of Adults from the University of Surrey. Furthermore, she recently completed a Masters of Advanced Studies in "Gestion des RH et des Carrières," (Specialising in Career Management and Coaching), at the Universities of Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchatel & Fribourg. 

Having successfully worked and operated in different cultures and languages, Sunita's strength lies in her ability to totally empathize with her clients and help them to perform their best.