HERE in Singapore, we all try our best to speak proper English, but we have a problem. In global workplaces, it is getting more difficult to define exactly what “proper” English is.

What is ‘proper’ English?

English is spoken by approximately 400 million native speakers throughout the world. Native English varieties include standard British and American English and their sister varieties spoken in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for example.

On top of the many native varieties, there are other varieties of English spoken in places such as India, the Philippines and here in Singapore.

There are approximately 1.4 billion non-native English speakers who speak these “non-standard” varieties or are non-native speakers of the native varieties in the United States, United Kingdom and so forth.

It seems more logical to teach the 400 million native speakers how to better communicate with the 1.4 billion non-native speakers, and not the other way around.

Yet we continue to place emphasis on the importance of speaking “proper” (usually British) English.

A changing definition

To succeed in global business, our idea of “proper” English needs to change.

The rules are already bending. You forgive linguistic errors as long as the message is clear and easily understood.

English teachers, grammarians and the occasional language snob may frown upon these changes, insisting that we must adhere to the rules and guidelines of “proper” English, but languages are always changing, and English is changing on a global scale.

We, the users of the language, are the ones who decide what is proper and what is not with every word we speak and write.

Once enough people agree on a certain convention, it becomes a rule, and so the language continues to change. There are three things we can do to ensure more successful global communication:

1. Be adaptable

Singaporeans are better at adapting their speech to their audience than any group of people I know. In the very first seconds of a conversation, you are somehow able to determine where an individual is from, what their level of English is, and which variety of English would be best-received by that specific person — before you adapt to suit them.

2. Be clear

In global speech, make sure that your consonant sounds are unique (don’t confuse R and L or V and W, for example).

Your vowels should be clear, with the use of pauses and tone changes to enhance the meaning of your message.

In writing, use common vocabulary and stay away from acronyms, jargon and culturally specific idioms.

3. Take responsibility

We need to try harder — not only to speak more clearly, but also to understand others better. We need to stop hearing and start listening.

Notice how when we focus on these three areas of our communication, the idea of “proper” English suddenly isn’t so important. Instead of judging and correcting others, we forgive, we try and we better understand.

Have confidence in your English, be proud of the accent you think is so “heavy”, and don’t worry about the occasional misplaced comma. If your message is understood and the desired action is taken, then your communication has been successful.