60% of hospitality workers are non native speakers and can misunderstand common business English words

Walk into any hospitality business in any UK city today and at least half of the people employed will not have English as their first language. More prevalent in some areas than others, this is verified by research published in 2018 by Fourth, which examined the cultural backgrounds of migrant workers in the UK’s restaurant, pub and hotel sectors.

As a whole, the restaurant industry is heavily reliant on foreign workers, with 61% of employees coming from overseas and when looking at back-of-house restaurant roles, it is even higher at 70%. In the casual dining sector (QSR) 73% of workers do not have English as their first language. In hotels, 50% of workers are non-native English speakers and in the pub sector, it is 20% of people.

The number of non-native English speakers now far outnumbers native speakers and is increasingly being adopted as the common company language in many organisations. According to Babbel, there are 360 million-odd native English speakers. Over half a billion people speak it as a second language and English is now spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide. That’s one in every four.

Although most of the people we encounter in service situations do speak pretty good functional English, they often don’t appreciate all the linguistic nuances and they find a lot of business words confusing. Some people might think they don’t need to.  Does it really matter?  I think yes.

In a 2012 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, nearly 70 per cent of executives said their workforce will need to master English to realise corporate expansion plans, and a quarter said more than 50 per cent of their total workforce will need English ability. That was seven years ago and since then, English has become even more important and now makes a significant contribution to sustainable global development. According to Mark Robson, Director of English and Exams at the British Council, “It is the UK’s greatest gift to the world and the world’s common language.”

I had a situation recently where the English language mistakes made by an otherwise very friendly barista that had served me regularly and with whom I had built quite a rapport over some time, started to become really annoying. She got my name confused with “Stefan” and insisted on pronouncing it wrongly, even though I explained many times that the ‘ph’ is sounded as a ‘v’ and that it’s an easy mistake to make. She was so persistent in refusing to acknowledge this slip up that I now go to an alternative coffee shop.

If her English language and cultural knowledge was a bit better, that wouldn’t have happened. She would have understood that it’s not the ‘done thing’ to overly labour a point. That’s a non-critical example, although the coffee shop concerned have lost my business as a result. In other industries, miscommunication can be fatal. According to the author of Aviation English, Dr Estival has estimated over 1000 deaths in plane crashes have been due to communication failures, often between crews that speak English and crews that don’t.

People who are working in English need more support. In the UK, poor English language skills and proficiency is the most common barrier to employment and career progression for non-native speakers. Incidentally, it’s also an issue for native speakers too. YouTube research found that more than half of British adults are not confident with their command of spelling and grammar and English language tutorial videos are seeing a huge surge in popularity.

Since April 2017, YouTube have measured a 126% increase in views of English language lesson videos on the site. That’s the same as our experience, across 7 countries including the UK, our English language courses are among the most popular with learners across all industry sectors.

GoodHabitz research has also shown that some of the most commonly misunderstood words and phrases for non-native English speakers are very commonly used business terms. Workers have particular issues with words like ‘onboarding’, ‘compensation’ and ‘resignation’, all of which have multiple meanings depending on the context. They also find phrases like ‘to be laid off’, ‘go the extra mile’ and ‘ballpark figure’ misleading.

By 2020, The British Council estimates that two billion people will be using English in their workplace. More and more, it is the ‘operating system’ of global conversations and especially so among the economically active. The global ‘language of convenience’, it is also very widely misunderstood, especially in a business context as our research has shown.

Commonly misunderstood workplace English terms: Source GoodHabitz

Commonly misunderstood business English terms: Source GoodHabitz


Stephen Humphreys, General Manager UK and Ireland, GoodHabitz

GoodHabitz are online learning specialists offering a Netflix style, subscription based learning and development platform, specialising in personal development and soft skills training.