Leading Virtual Teams

>> English as the Global Team Language

A major difficulty in virtual teams is that non-native speakers are obviously at a serious disadvantage in all inter-team communication situations. No matter how good somebody is in a second language, they are never as fluent as they are in their native language.

Very often, the common international language of global virtual meetings will be English and native speakers will make few efforts to speak in a ‘user-friendly’ fashion to help their non-native speaker colleagues or clients. Native speakers need to think very carefully about their use of language when interacting in an international arena

Non-native speakers need to be given every assistance to ensure that they can fully participate in virtual team events. If the meetings are dominated by native-speakers of English, it is Global Team Leader’s fault. Don’t let it happen!

Be aware of the following at all times:

Control Your Speed
Keep at the forefront of your mind: slow down, slow down, slow down and try to speak at the same pace regardless of who you are talking to. Don’t speak more slowly to non-native speakers only to speed up when conversing with other native speakers.


Native speakers use all kinds of vocabulary that non-native speakers simply do not know. When working internationally it is a good thing to use the same vocabulary over and over again. It is the message which is important, not the style of the messenger!


These figures of speech such as ‘cheesed off’ (unhappy), ‘sticky wicket’ (difficult situation) are usually a nightmare for non-native speakers because they are often illogical. Colloquialisms (sayings) are very confusing when used in an international situation. There is always another way to say the same thing – chose the other way.

Colloquialisms can be a good thing to talk about in social situations as people love to learn them. In serious meetings, however, they can cause great confusion.


Humor is usually at the edge of linguistic complexity and is often very culturally specific. What one country finds funny, people from another culture may find irrelevant or even slightly surreal.

Very few abbreviations are universally understood and it is best to be very careful about their usage.

Abbreviations used in English are usually short forms of common English phases such as a.s.a.p. (as soon as possible) or abbreviations of Latin phrases such as n.b. (nota bona).

TLAs (three letter acronyms) – which are often used to describe products or parts of your organization – should be used very carefully. Do all team members understand them?

When people do not respond quickly to questions, non-native speakers usually answer the question themselves or simply move on and ignore the silence but often, non-native speakers do not respond immediately because they need a little more time to form an answer than they would if they were speaking their own language.

Therefore non-native speakers should be given a little more time and space in which to operate.

And finally, remember that English is spoken in different ways by different people – UK English often differs significantly from US English.

Latest version updated 23rd March 2017

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