How to speak really professional English

How do you learn to speak professional English ?

You buy a book or do a course online or, right? One of those extremely professional looking ones on engineering, law, medicine or management or whatever your field is …if somebody has published a book or course on your particular subject!

This will definitely provide you with a good deal of useful vocabulary, and hopefully it will even have put the words into usable sentences.

So, if you memorise all that material, will that mean you can use it effectively?

Not necessarily….

Claire, a native German speaker, is training to be a midwife. She’ s already done a course in English for midwifery, consisting mainly of a series of readings about various aspects of midwifery and then she was tested on her knowledge of the vocabulary.

Does this mean that Claire will now be ready to interview pregnant women about intimate, personal issues in a way that wins their trust and puts them at ease?

Again, not necessarily…

I gave Claire the task of formulating a series of questions that she would ask expectant women and got her to roleplay the interview with me.

Did she use correct grammar? Yes
Did she use precise vocabulary? Yes

If I had been a real patient, would I have found it easy to trust Claire and felt comfortable in allowing her to attend to me at a time of extreme vulnerability?
Er….not really.

Don’t get me wrong; Claire is a lovely, warm, friendly person who in general conversation is very easy to talk to so why did I not feel completely at ease?

The first problem was that although the way she began her questions with “Do you want /Do you have etc ?”, was absolutely correct, there was something about this that made me feel as though I was being interrogated by the police!

The key here is in knowing what style is appropriate for the context;
what the relationship is between the interviewer and the interviewee;
and how to adjust questions to achieve the outcome you want.

In this situation, the aim is to establish trust, put patients at ease and make them feel relaxed enough to allow a professional to carry out potentially uncomfortable and intimate procedures.

Skilled native-speaking professionals would use a much softer style and less direct questions forms so the interviewee would feel less threatened.

Here are some examples:
Can you tell me if …?
Would you like to …?
Would you mind if I…?
Do you think you might ..?
Would you have a preference for…?

So does just using the right question forms mean that you can achieve the right effect?

Again, not necessarily.

There’s a lot more to it than just using the right words.

Think for a moment about when you have been a patient or a client using a service. When did you feel most comfortable and at ease with the professional who was dealing with you?
Think about the way you’ve been spoken to in the past- by your favourite primary school teacher or a nice doctor who reassured you about the uncomfortable procedure they were just about to carry out on you, which made you feel less anxious.

What exactly was it that made you feel that you could trust them?

The way people speak to us is often more important than the actual words they say, isn’t it?

Being addressed in a kind, light and patient tone is key to reassuring people. A flat or downward intonation indicates lack of interest or a rapid upward tone sounds impatient.

Most people working in another language are concentrating so hard on getting the words right and don’t realise that subtle differences in tone can make or break the interview.

What’s more, as intonation patterns vary between languages it means that what may sound perfectly normal in your language may create a very different mood in another. If you’re desperately trying to create trust, it just won’t happen if you sound the least bit sharp or disinterested!

Knowing what works in English with native English speakers is absolutely vital.

And that’s why simply relying on a book of vocabulary is not enough. You really need to be personally coached in the subtle art of adapting your language use and intonation in order to get the results you really want.