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Help! How do I speak English in a meeting after not speaking English for years?

This is what a stressed-out team leader asked me last week. His manager had asked him to present his ideas at the global management meeting in English – but unfortunately – he hadn’t spoken English for a long time and needed help. Luckily, there are many things you can do to ease your anxiety, so if you suddenly find yourself in the situation where you need to speak English after a long break, here are a few things you can do.

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1. Prepare

Take a moment to go over some English basics. Make sure you can introduce yourself simply and explain your position in the company. Also think about how you will ask a question, interrupt a speaker or ask for clarification if you need to. Which key words can you check before going into the meeting?

2. Manage expectations

Make sure you manage your own expectations regarding how much you will be able to follow the meeting and how much you will be able to contribute. Do not expect to suddenly understand everything if you are returning to English after a long break. Expect to slowly get used to hearing English again. Expect to follow more as the meeting goes on and you relax a little. However, also expect to get tired quicker as it takes a lot of effort to listen to an English meeting after a long break!

 3. Take notes

If you are having trouble following, take notes so you can catch up later or have someone give you more details in your own language afterwards. Do not try to write down everything! Focus on writing down key verbs (important actions) and nouns (important names and points).

 4. Be honest

If you need to contribute, be honest about how much you can communicate and how much you understand. There is no point in lying or pretending you understand – it is easy to see how much you are following (or not). There is no shame in being rusty; it is hard to speak another language, especially in business. The other people in the meeting will appreciate your honesty (and many may be feeling the same).

 5. Use resources

If there are slides in the meeting, make sure you ask for copies so you can go over key points after the meeting. If you are allowed to bring your laptop into the meeting, use an online dictionary when you do not understand words that are used repeatedly. Do not check each and every word, just key words that are repeated during the meeting and are important for understanding. Also, although the meeting is in English, you can ask colleagues for a quick translation during the break (or quietly as the meeting moves from speaker to speaker or topic to topic). Use every resource available to make sure your return to English is as pain free as possible.

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