I was once a partner in a project that was dedicated to people who provided care to older people. As part of the project, we examined caregiving in each of our countries, and unveiled trends such as which countries were more likely to employ professional carers and which ones tended to provide care for their elderly relatives themselves. I was the only native English speaker there and found it difficult not to cringe as my colleagues talked at length about how, “In Germany, people do not care about their older relatives”.

Those of you with a good knowledge of those fickle English phrasal verbs will know why I was cringing. “Care for” and “care about” have very different meanings. The former is what my good colleagues meant to say. To “care for” someone is to look after them and to make sure their needs are met. The latter, on the other hand, “care about”, means to feel concern for or interest in something, and to not care about something is quite a damning statement, implying, in this instance, that Germans are cold creatures who are uninterested in the wellbeing of their older relatives.You can see why this sounded harsh to my English-speaking ears!

Those with even more advanced English will know that even if they had used the correct preposition and said, “In Germany, people do not care for their older relatives”, it still wouldn’t have sounded right to an English speaker. Yes, it’s technically correct, but it sounds harsh and accusatory, and there’s a little-used application for the “care for” phrasal verb that has a quite similar meaning to “care about” (confusing, I know). A lazy rule in English is the more delicate the topic and the more polite you are trying to be, the more words you use. So, how would I have stated this fact as a native speaker?

“In Germany, people are more likely to employ professionals to provide care to their older relatives.”

I know what you’re thinking: What? Why is it that, in English, we always use 10 words for something that could be said in 5? How are you supposed to know about all these subtle rules that even native speakers can’t fully explain? Will such mistakes damage my project communications and, if so, how do we avoid them?

If you’re reading this, you likely have come from our newsletter where I talk about how incorrect English phrasing can negatively affect what you are trying to communicate to the public about your project. Even a small mistake in a phrasal verb can have a big impact, and if you are dealing with sensitive topics, which is often the case in such projects, it is all too easy to inadvertently offend or misrepresent those you are trying to help. In a world that is increasingly politically conscious, using the correct terminology is more important than ever. But how can a non-native speaker possibly attempt to negotiate this ever-changing landscape and all the subtleties involved?

The answer is that, of course, in everyday communication, you’re not really expected to know about all these complexities. Most of you will have experienced hearing someone speak your native language as their second language before and will know that you automatically make exceptions and don’t expect them to speak it perfectly. In English, we are very used to non-native English speakers and, as people who are notoriously monolingual, we are usually just impressed that they can speak a second language at all!

In the example I gave in my newsletter, I knew what my colleagues meant to say and, even though what they said sounded harsh, I would never have judged them for it. However, it did make me very conscious that I need to check all public communications before allowing them to be publishedand that I would need to update them on the correct terminology before they talk about the project publicly.While people will make exceptions if they hear an individual struggling to explain something in their second language, they will expect better from project promotional materials, websites, publications, etc. And, at a certain level, the correct language is also expected. For example, presenters at high level conferences should know the politically correct terminology related to their topic, regardless of their individual language background. 

However, the problems related to language barriers are not just external and public facing. Internally, diverse European consortia can be a recipe for miscommunication. Language barriers can impede effective decision making, it can breed conflict, a lack of understanding of project goals, and can ultimately delay and/or damage a project.

So how do we go about bridging that gap and ensuring that we are not damaging our projects’ progress and impact due to language barriers?

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, protagonist Arthur Dent only had to slip a “Babel Fish” in his ear to understand all languages perfectly. If only such a thing existed in our reality! Unfortunately, there is no magical solution to communication barriers, but improving English language competencies can go a long way in helping you work and express yourself more effectively; improve your confidence at meetings, presentations, and in written communications; and ensure smooth communication with partners and stakeholders.

Most English language courses are focused on either general business English or English for tourism. While this is certainly helpful, the most efficient use of time and money would be a course tailored specifically to European projects, and even more specifically to your projects and the key topics related to them. Such a course would streamline and maximise the effectiveness of your English language learning and allow you to focus on areas that would improve your confidence and ability to manage communications within your projects.

This is why I am delighted to be able to introduce a new, flexible, online English course specifically for European project managers. As well as being Communications Coordinator at M-Powered, I have five years’ experience managing and developing several European projects and am a qualified trainer and ESL teacher. My approach focuses on not just the vocabulary and grammar needed for effective communication within projects, but on negotiating cultural differences, fluency and pronunciation, and integrating good project communication strategies. After a free, no-commitment consultation to assess your needs, I can develop a learning plan to address your English language needs and can work with you via individual lessons or as part of the 6-week course that fits around your schedule.

Want to find out more? Click here to read more about the course and sign up for your freeneeds assessment.

The TOP 9 mistakes most EU project managers make and how to AVOID them

Download this free guidebook to learn simple strategies that will give you the clarity and confidence to manage your projects.

You will also get our newsletter delivered to your inbox twice a month.

Don’t want it? No problem. You can unsub in one-click.