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The Cost Of 'Natural' Business Communications For Multilingual Entrepreneurs

Though English is not my first language, it's the primary language of my professional life and has been for many years. At times, this has brought unique challenges — a central one being the problem of sounding "natural."

As a company founder, earlier in my career, I needed to write English communications that sounded credible enough to sell our product to established — and at times rather traditional — organizations.

My grammar and mechanics were excellent. I scored high on English aptitude tests like the GMAT and TOEFL to get into graduate schools. In some ways, I had a better command of English than most native speakers.

However, something was off. My MBA classmates said something about how the way I wrote didn’t quite feel “normal,” equating it to their “spidey senses” tingling.

Even though I was technically fluent, issues were keeping me from sounding “natural.” Many English words have different meanings from their closest counterparts in other languages. Even if a word’s meaning is the same between languages, the frequency with which particular words are used differs between languages. In addition, the style and formality of different phrases and grammatical structures are not consistent across languages or cultures.

This meant I was not presenting myself in high-stakes English communications as I intended. When several small mistakes in word use, style, formality or other language elements accumulate, writing can sound odd to a native speaker.

Consequences Of Sounding Too ‘Natural’ In Writing

To sound more “natural” in writing, a multilingual speaker might think the answer lies in technology that supports formally correct language. However, relying on such tools can actually bring communication into an uncanny valley, where it sounds less natural.

Tech tools have historically been able to help with foundational mechanics. Word processing programs generally include grammar checking programs that cover writing basics. Services like Google Translate can help multilingual speakers quickly define and find synonyms for foreign words and phrases.

However, these tools can also push writing toward overly formal language that makes the writer sound robotic. This is a challenge for multilingual speakers when communicating professionally.

Multilingual speakers who rely heavily on technology hit that uncanny communication valley and can sound less credible as a result. When a multilingual speaker’s writing markedly improves yet still contains hard-to-pinpoint qualities that seem unnatural, the effectiveness and authenticity of the message are weakened.

I discovered this phenomenon when I tested my sales emails and partnership requests with my MBA classmates. Common feedback was that my messages were clear but somehow still felt off, with no reason. Something was wrong, but it was so subtle I couldn’t isolate it. As a result, my writing was not projecting the credibility I desired.

For my issue, I wanted to get a more contextual understanding of what sounded natural. I Googled frequently used phrases, used specific words in specific contexts and so on. I read many examples and asked for feedback. Still, it took dozens — in Ukrainian, I would say “tens” rather than “dozens” — to hundreds of rounds of edits on my documents to get them just right.

Being aware of this specific issue meant I could solve it — but that’s not a privilege everyone has. Imagine if I continued to write emails that made people subconsciously feel uneasy and didn’t know. That could have been the end of my entrepreneurial career.

Technology Should Be A Coach, Not A Crutch

The key to avoiding this communication gray area is using technology as a coach instead of a crutch. This was crucial on my own path toward improving my writing, sounding more natural and ultimately finding success in my career.

Multilingual speakers should use tools that support efficient writing while helping them learn. I believe personal tech should balance automation with coaching. Tech shouldn’t just think for you — it should help you think better.

To sound natural and achieve business goals, one should use tech for augmentation. Compare communication technology to fitness apps. A good fitness app teaches proper exercise form, supports gradual increases in workout intensity and helps build the skills needed to feel confident at the gym. If the app isn’t available one day, one will still have gained the skills to complete their workout well.

Artificial intelligence is powering advancements in communications technologies. Leveraging AI, users can access data that assesses inclusive language, vocabulary, tone, accuracy and overall clarity — and they can still express their unique thoughts, intentions and style while maintaining their distinct voice.

Language Should Not Be A Barrier To Success

My personal approach to sounding more natural aims to achieve this balance — using technology to help me learn while communicating my own thoughts to ensure I don’t lose myself in the process.

Here are some takeaways:

  1. One solution does not fit the needs of all multilingual speakers. Consider which specific areas of writing mechanics you struggle with — based on your primary or native language — and look for support in those areas.

  2. Everyone is on a communications journey — never stop learning. Think of your path to fluency as an opportunity to deepen your understanding of writing, not just a problem you need to solve for one specific message or email. Consider signing up for Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Day” newsletter or exploring Coursera.

  3. Have empathy for your reader — and yourself. You have a voice, and it must come across to your reader so they can understand you as you intend. You have particular goals in everything you write, and your skills as a communicator can help you get there.

When I started my entrepreneurial journey, I needed to sound more “natural” in my written communications to build stronger business connections. As a nonnative English speaker and the co-founder of a company, I leveraged technology to craft authentic communications while learning along the way. Through this experience, I learned how to balance the use of digital language tools without sacrificing my unique perspective and voice. I hope my journey can inspire other nonnative speakers to find the right tools to achieve their business goals.

By Max Lytvyn - Forbes Technology Council - first published on https://www.forbes.com/ December 28, 2020