7 more ways native speakers can effectively communicate internationally

This article was first published on etprofessional.com, where I am a resident blogger.

This is the final part of a 4-parter.

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

When you think of someone with good communication skills, you might recall the very witty speaker giving a talk at a conference, or the charming host at a party, or the very confident politician who manages to persuade masses with his rhetoric. Communication skills seem like a privileged gift to some. A gift to charm, to amuse, and to persuade.

But the ability to communicate effectively in an international arena requires skills that are useful to those having to manage teams across national borders, deal with suppliers and clients based abroad, and get along with colleagues and friends who come from cultures and language backgrounds different from your own. In the age of the internet, Skype, and online communication, they are skills that anyone living in the modern world would need, and are certainly able to acquire.

In my first and second blogposts of this series, I looked at the reasons why native speakers of English might need to learn how to speak English internationally, pointing out the need for us to not rest on our laurels, assuming that our native language has been adopted as the global language of trade, business and education, and that we have no need to work on our communication skills.

In my last post, I looked at five of the ways native speakers can work on their soft skills when communicating internationally, and in this last post of the series, I will be looking at seven more ways we can become better international communicators.

6. Learn to accommodate and adapt to different ways of communicating.

Different speech communities might have different conversation styles. This might affect the following:

  • The speed of speech;
  • The volume of speech;
  • The pitch of one’s voice;
  • The intonation and stress patterns of a sentence;
  • The norms of turn-taking and interrupting;
  • Direct and indirect ways of speaking;
  • Narrative structures of stories told;
  • Expectations of their conversation partner;
  • Different ways of speaking to people of a higher status, etc.

When our interlocutors have a different conversation style to our own, it is sometimes easy to get the wrong impression and assume that our interlocutor is rude, insincere, strange or even obnoxious.

Try to spot what it is about their conversation style that is different from yours.

Is it the staccato-like quality to their speech? Is it the fact that they tend to leave long silences in between turns? Is it the way they like to back up every claim they make with a long background story?

Once you can spot the difference between your conversation styles, you can then accommodate them and practice adapting. It might be difficult to suddenly start speaking quickly if you are used to speaking slowly. And intonation and stress patterns might too ingrained to try and adapt.

But some conversation features might be easier for you to adapt to. You could allow for some silence between turns if that’s what they do. And if they tend to tell lots of background stories, you could even try telling a background story or two of your own that supports what you say.

The willingness to accommodate and adapt also applies to different language levels and abilities. In my last post, I wrote about how we can tailor the language we use to make our talk clearer to our conversation partners.

Be aware of your conversation partner’s language ability. Do they sound like beginners, low-intermediates, high-intermediates, or advanced speakers? When you are speaking to them, what do they understand and what do they have difficulty with? Can you make your message clearer to them by adapting the way you speak?

Here is an example of how Steve McClaren, a football manager working in Holland, adapts to the English speakers in Holland. How does he adapt his speech?

Instead of applauding McClaren’s ability to communicate internationally, this interview came under a lot of criticism from British native speakers of English. It was curious to see how uncomfortable it made many native speakers to hear a fellow native speaker change the way he spoke. Perhaps this calls for more awareness raising of the importance of adapting our speech in international communication.

 

7. Ask for clarification.

The different conversation styles, the mixed abilities and levels of English, the varied cross-cultural norms all make international communication rather tricky and the likelihood of misunderstandings is intensified. And misunderstandings could have very negative consequences in the world of international business.

It is therefore extremely important to listen actively and avoid making assumptions. If you are unsure of what your interlocutor means, what he/she might be implying, or how they feel about what you’ve said, do not be afraid to ask questions and clarify what is being said.

Instead of simply saying, “I don’t understand what you’re saying!”, try using phrases like:

“Let me check that I understood you correctly…”
“So I believe what you are saying is…”
“Do you mean …?”
“Let me just repeat that back to you to make sure that we understand the same thing.”
“I know you said…but how do you feel about it?”
“Am I right to assume that you are not very keen on…?”

 

8. Paraphrase and summarise what you’ve said.

While we might make use of clarification techniques with our interlocutors, we cannot assume that they will do the same. Some conversation partners might even nod, smile or say ‘yes’ to everything you are saying but this might not mean that they actually understand you clearly.

In order to ensure that what you are saying is understood, ensure that you

  1. make your point clearly,
  2. give reasons and/or examples to back up what you are saying,
  3. repeat your point again using different words, i.e. paraphrase.

At the end of a business conversation or meeting, it is helpful to summarise the main points of what has been discussed and agreed on, and to reiterate the action that needs to be taken.

 

9. Avoid too many cultural references.

If you are used to only speaking to people from your own native speaker communities, then you might be unaware of the number of cultural references littered throughout your daily conversations.

The next time you have a conversation, notice how many of the following categories of references you and your friends use in conversation:

  • References to pop icons and celebrities (who might not be internationally known);
  • References to political figures (who might not be internationally known) and what they represent;
  • References to TV shows, films and music (past and present) that might not be known to others;
  • References to certain stereotypes known to your own community/region, e.g. all Chelsea supporters are XYZ; people from Newcastle like to do XYZ, people from Glasgow speak in a particular way that is perceived as XYZ…
  • References to places in your country or region that might be obscure to others;
  • References to groups of people in your country, e.g. hipsters, goths, scousers, Sloane rangers, toffs, Essex girls, etc.
  • References to typical dishes, foods or drinks from your country/region;
  • References to typical pastimes and hobbies that might not be shared by others
  • References to historical events that might not be as internationally known as you may think, etc.

I am of course not implying that you should have conversations devoid of all cultural references. But if you do make a reference to one of the above, be aware that you might need to explain it to the non-native speaker. And too many of such cultural references might kill the conversation.

 

10. Use humour carefully.

Humour is often used to break the ice, to ease the tension and to bond with others. But it can also be used to exclude and to confuse.

Looking through the ‘Top 20 jokes ever’ as compiled by the Mirror, you will immediately notice that all the jokes listed featured a play on words. One had to know either the multiple meanings of a word/phrase, or the homonyms (words that sound like one another but have different meanings). Some of them require some cultural knowledge either of Britain or of the country the joke mentions.

Here’s an example:
“Doc, I can’t stop singing The Green, Green Grass of Home. He said: ‘That sounds like Tom Jones syndrome.’ ‘Is it common?’ I asked. ‘It’s not unusual’ he replied.

Our cultural upbringing has a lot to do with our sense of humour. I once had the following conversation with a Japanese housemate:

Yuki: Is this Coca-Cola?
Me: No, it’s a pizza.

Although it was not a particularly good joke, I had meant it to be ironic but not sarcastic. Yuki, however, was puzzled and slightly insulted, thinking that I meant to treat her like the fool. Some months and many bad jokes later, Yuki said to me, ‘I finally understand the British sense of humour! It’s all about bullying others!’

Upon some research, I found that both the Japanese and the Chinese had only one expression to mean both irony and sarcasm. Being ironic, therefore, carried a negative connotation of insulting the hearer. Although Yuki had identified the semantic pattern in creating irony, the sense that the English found humour in bullying others was certainly misplaced.

Anthropologist Fox (2004:65-66) notes that the English treat irony as ‘a constant, a normal element of ordinary, everyday conversation’ and the ‘dominant ingredient in English humour’. What makes irony even more difficult for foreigners to understand is the fact that delivering the joke with a deadpan face is the expected norm.

Categorising understatements as part of irony, Fox sympathises with the non-native speaker, admitting that this constant self-parodying is part of the English psyche deeply ingrained in the culture.

So use irony sparingly in international communication and be aware that what might be lauded as wit in an English native speaker culture might just be seen as condescension and even one-upmanship to a non-native speaker.

 

11. Be aware of the way you communicate with other native speakers in the room.

When in a meeting or gathering involving other native and non-native speakers, it is tempting for the native speaker to start using complicated language and cultural references that might exclude the non-native speakers in the room. At best, this will cost you bonding opportunities with the non-native speakers; and at worst, this will lead them to believe that you are strategically using your mastery of your native tongue to confuse, to trick and to run circles round those whose native tongue isn’t English.

When speaking to other native speakers in the presence of non-native speakers, be considerate to those participating in your conversation and don’t assume that just because the fellow native speaker understands you, the others do too.

 

12. Learn another language.

This might be a tall order, but you need not embark on a full-scale language learning journey in order to empathise with those who use English as a second language. The next time you go abroad, attempt to learn and use some simple phrases at the airport, at the shops and at the restaurants.

As a speaker of the world’s lingua franca, it is sometimes tempting to fall back on English to communicate your needs. It is after all less embarrassing and you feel more in control. But it is precisely this control over your communicative ability that needs to be stripped in order for you to gain better insights into the interactions you will have with non-native speakers of English.

Sociolinguist John Gumperz, the father of interactional sociolinguistics, was known for saying that the ‘standard’ form of a language (in our case ‘native speaker British/American English’) is really the dialect of those who are in power. And those who speak a stigmatised and less powerful dialect (e.g. our non-native speaker counterparts) often are expected to have the ability to be diglossic (fluent in their own dialects/languages plus the standard variety).

Gumperz very astutely observes that those who are native to the prestige dialect (that which is considered the ‘standard’) are rarely able to speak in other codes. Although Gumperz made such observations in the 1960s, it is perhaps still true of the English native speakers in today’s world where most English speakers are in fact non-native.

It is perhaps time that the native speakers who aim to communicate internationally strive to be more diglossic and improve their ability to code-switch from their native ways of speaking English to adapt to their interlocutors from the international community.

To read more on the subject, please look at a copy of my book, Successful International Communication, published in December 2018.


Bibliography

Fox, K. (2004) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder.

Gumperz, J. (1971) Language in Social Groups. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Further reading

Chong, C.S. (2018) Successful International Communication, Pavilion Publishing.

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5 (out of 12) ways native speakers can effectively communicate internationally

This is the 3rd part of a 5-parter that was first published on ETprofessional.com, where I am a resident blogger.

You can read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 4 here.

Several years ago, in an episode of the reality TV game show The Apprentice (UK), Sir Alan Sugar sent the candidates to Germany to negotiate a deal with some distributors. One of the candidates approached every one of her appointments speaking rapidly, not allowing the other people in the room a turn to speak or giving them any chance to clarify what she was saying.

Despite the feedback given by her teammates about her ineffective communication style with the German potential business partners, she insisted that there was nothing wrong with the way she was speaking. That was until she arrived in the boardroom with Sir Alan Sugar, who did not hesitate to tell her off for losing the business.

Sir Alan Sugar then proceeded to lecture the candidate on the need to speak what he called ‘Trade English’ when doing business internationally. And not knowing the difference between ‘Trade English’ and the way she spoke English with her English clients had cost her the business deal.

I started this blog series two months ago with the post ‘5 reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally, and the post has gone on to receive a lot more attention than I had anticipated.

The overwhelming number of votes that led it to win the British Council featured blog of the month award and the interest and discussion it generated over social media confirmed the fact (to me) that this was something that needed to be said.

Following the award was an IATEFL Birmingham Online video interview about the blogpost, and then the second post of the series, ‘5 more reason why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally’, was published.

The blogpost also provided fodder for a podcast by the TEFL Show where the two speakers discussed the five different reasons suggested by my post, gave their own opinions and provided concrete personalised examples of their very own.

But can the issues that native speakers have with international communication be resolved simply by speaking what Sir Alan Sugar called ‘Trade English’?

More commonly known as ‘International English’, this often refers to the use of English as the main language of meetings, negotiations, emails, etc. when communicating internationally.

In the field of sociolinguistics, this phenomenon is better known by the term ‘English as a Lingua Franca’ (ELF). ELF highlights the fact that as many as 80% of the users of English who are traditionally considered non-native speakers are using English as the common language to speak to other non-native speakers. (Seidlhofer, 2004) They might encounter native speakers of English in their business interactions, but they have not learnt English to communicate specifically with native speakers. To many of them, English is a tool for international communication.

For the native speaker of English entering an environment where there might be more non-native speakers than native speakers, it is important that they consider their communication strategies and how they can build better business relationships without intimidating their interlocutors with their language expertise.

How can native speakers (or any speaker of English for that matter) learn to communicate better internationally?

Here are my first five out of twelve tips.

1. Speak clearly and watch your speed of speech.

If, like me, you are the kind of person who speaks at a mile a minute, remember to slow down, take a beat between phrases and sentences, and as a good stage actor would say, ‘Own your words!’

Avoid mumbling.
Think about what you want to say, and then say it. Try not to be the stereotype of a bumbling buffoon.

Don’t let your sentences trail off with the expectation that people know what you mean and thus you don’t need to say it.
They don’t know what you mean and you DO need to say it.

2. Listen actively.

Many of us say we are listening, but in fact, we are only half listening, waiting for our turn to speak and being distracted by other thoughts. Pay attention to what is being said and what is not being said. Don’t presume you know what the speaker means. Listen with an open mind.

Effective listeners remember that ‘words have no meaning – people have meaning’. The assignment of meaning to a term is an internal process; meaning comes from inside us.
And although our experiences, knowledge and attitudes differ, we often misinterpret each other’s messages while under the illusion that a common understanding has been achieved.
❞ (Larry Barker)

3. Be aware of the language you use.

There may not be a need to ‘dumb down’ your English and try and speak ‘incorrectly’, but that does not mean you should overcomplicate your sentences unnecessarily.
Become aware of the structures and the vocabulary you use when you speak. Are they appropriate to your interlocutors?

(i) Grammar & Vocabulary

Which one do you think is clearer to the non-native speaker?
(a) Should you happen to see him, let him know that I am expecting him to hand the report in to me soon as.
(b) If you see him, tell him to submit the report to me as soon as possible.

It is clear that sentence (a) is a lot more complex and difficult to understand than sentence (b). But why? Here’re the issues with sentence (a):

  • It uses the ‘Should + person + happen + to-infinitive’ structure’ – not only is this much more complicated than a simple ‘if’, the meaning of ‘should’ here is slightly different from its more common usage.
  • It is more verbose, using ‘let him know that I am expecting him to…’ In the English culture, creating distance by using more words and more complex structures can make the speaker seem more polite. In international communication, clarity is a higher priority. Being unclear and overly verbose and distant might create the opposite effect of being impolite.
  • It uses the separable phrasal verb ‘hand in’, which might be more difficult to understand than ‘submit’.
  • It uses a modern truncation of the abbreviation ‘ASAP’ – ‘soon as’. Avoid trendy modern native speaker talk. It ought to serve to bond but can instead backfire and serve to confuse. Abbreviations are also best avoided, especially if you suspect that your interlocutor might not know what they stand for.

Which one do you think is clearer to the non-native speaker?
(a) That has nothing to do with me at all.
(b) That is not connected to me at all.

Many native speakers might think that sentence (a) is the easier one, but if you break the sentence down into its smaller parts, you start to realise that it isn’t easy for the non-native speaker to derive meaning from it. Knowing the meaning of the words ‘has’, ‘nothing’, and ‘to do’ would not give you a clue to what the whole sentence actually means. Sentence (b) is more direct in its meaning.

Sentence (a) is in fact quite idiomatic in its usage. There are some ELF proponents who believe that idioms should not be used in international communication. I, however, would suggest a more measured approach that requires awareness and reflection.

The following three sentences all contain idioms. Which one do you think is clearer to the non-native speaker?

(a) Gary was flat busted.
(b) Gary didn’t have a nickel to his name.
(c) Gary was broke.

Sentence (a) uses a localised idiom and can only be understood by people from a certain locality. Naturally, it’s not advisable that we use local idioms and colloquialisms in international communication.
Sentence (b) uses idiom and, arguably, a rather archaic one at that. Not the best way to promote effective international communication.
Sentence (c) uses the idiom ‘broke’, which is commonly used worldwide and has been absorbed into our everyday vocabulary. Such an idiom would probably not cause as much of an issue with understanding.

When using idioms, consider if they are localised and specific to where you come from. Using an idiom that is only understandable to the speaker and not to the listener will cause ‘unilateral idiomaticity’ (Seidlhofer, 2004) and can hinder communication.

 

(ii) Pronunciation

Your accent is part of your identity and you should definitely be proud of it. But your accent switches ever so subtly as you move from talking to your mates at the football game to talking to the Director of your company.

We all code-switch depending on who we speak to, so consider how you might change the way you enunciate your words when speaking to non-native speakers who might find it harder to understand you, as they may be more self-conscious and embarrassed to admit it.

When speaking, watch the unstressed words in your sentences. Make sure they are not somehow swallowed and gone from your sentence.

Think about the pronunciation features that you use that might cause interference in your communication. For example, if you are British, you might use the glottal stop for the ‘t’s in ‘bottle’ or ‘water’. Pronounce your ‘t’s clearly and make it easier for your interlocutor.

And remember that your non-native speaker interlocutors may have a ‘foreign accent’ but that accent is also part of their identity, so avoid criticising it.

 

4. Give others a turn to speak

Ask for opinions, involve everyone, and encourage them to speak. When others are speaking, support them.
Avoid monologue-ing.

Be aware that different cultures have different norms when it comes to turn-taking, interrupting and holding the floor when speaking.

5. Respect others.

As a native speaker who is used to hearing your language used in a particular way for most of your life, it might be difficult, even grating, to hear variation and ‘mistakes’ in the language usage of a non-native speaker. Try to avoid nit-picking and try not to pretend you don’t understand when you do. Don’t forget they are speaking in their second language, so do allow them the benefit of the doubt.

In a social media discussion of the issue of helping native speakers become more effective international communicators, I came across a few skeptics who agreed that this was a problem but strongly believed that it was not a skill that can be taught. Some people are just born to be good at communicating with non-native speakers and are more sensitive to the needs of others.

I have no doubt that there are those who are naturally better international communicators than others, just like there are those who are more adept at making conversation in social situations and those who are just a bit more socially awkward.

But this does not mean that good communication skills cannot be taught.

 

There are already existing workshops and courses for native speakers of English run by companies like York Associates and freelancers like myself.

Commissioned by corporations and organisations where international communication is at the hub of their business, such courses often use critical incidents, case studies, role-plays and simulations, and critical thinking tasks to encourage the practice of effective international communication skills.

But central to such training is the promotion of self-reflection and self-awareness.

For if the candidate from The Apprentice could see herself through the eyes of the German business partners she was communicating with, I am sure she would immediately strive to make changes to how she spoke English internationally.

To read more on the subject, please look at a copy of my book, Successful International Communication, published in December 2018.

 


Bibliography

Seidlhofer, Barbara (2004) ‘Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca’, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24: 209-239.

Further reading on the subject

Chong, C.S. (2018) Successful International Communication, Pavilion Publishing.

Dignen, B and McMaster, I. (2013) Communication for International Business – The secrets to excellent interpersonal skills. Collins: London.

5 more reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally

The following post was first published on ETprofessional.com, where I am a resident blogger.

It is the 2nd post of a 4-parter.

You can read Part 1 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

 

Bob Dignen, the author of Communication for International Business: The secrets of excellent interpersonal skills, is known to have said that a common goal that many learners have is to speak like a native speaker and that this implies that native speakers are the best communicators, which often isn’t the case.

In an age when English has cemented its position as the lingua franca in the world of business and trade, it is easy for English native speakers to assume that they would have an advantage in international communication. But as my previous blogpost has shown, this might not be the case.

It seems ironic to consider the fact that native speakers now perhaps need language training to communicate internationally in their own native tongue and in this blogpost, let us consider five more reasons why.

But before we begin, allow me to re-post this disclaimer: Despite my name and skin colour, I am a native speaker of English and am by no means writing this post to criticize or put down other native speakers. This is my opinion and I am merely seeing a skills/knowledge gap that the public sector and companies need to consider training their staff in.

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6. They are sometimes regarded with caution.  

During my MA research, I interviewed some non-native speakers who worked on a reception desk at a school. One very fluent and very proficient non-native speaker said that he preferred talking to other non-native speakers because he felt like native speakers looked down on him when they spoke to him.

Whether they actually did look down on him or whether he was simply feeling self-conscious, it is hard to tell. I then asked a few other non-native speakers about this issue and there seems to be consensus about the fact that non-native speakers feel intimidated by speaking to native speakers.

Some non-native speakers revealed that some native speakers feel like they are the authority when it comes to communicating in their language, and adopt a condescending attitude when speaking to non-native speakers.

A friend of mine was in a meeting with a couple of English men. They were asked to brainstorm an adjective to describe a scene and my friend suggested ‘picturesque’. The native speaker beside him laughed and said, “There’s no such word in English!”

When my friend insisted that such a word did exist, the English man said, “I am English. This is my language. I know there is no such word in English.”

Of course, not all native speakers behave so badly but it is undoubtedly easier to feel ‘holier-than-thou’ when the lingua franca being used is your mother tongue.

7. They could be seen as using their language as a weapon. 

Some non-native speakers perceive native speakers as using their language to confuse, to lie, to trick, to irritate, and generally, to run circles round their conversation partners. There’s a level of distrust accompanying such a perception, as mentioned here, some non-native speakers see native speakers as playing games and using their language abilities to manipulate the situation, especially in business.

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8. They are more likely to be ethnocentric. 

Some language learners report of a change in their voice, their mannerisms, the way they hold themselves and even their personality when they adopt another language. I have been told many times that when I speak in Japanese, my voice is higher, more child-like, and my entire body language becomes more delicate and less assertive. This is not surprising as language can affect our identity and vice versa.

In the theory of linguistic relativity, also known as the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, the language we speak determines the way we see the world. (See for example, Whorf, 1956) And it also follows that when we speak another language, we are able to see the world through the cultural ‘lens’ of that language.

Does it naturally follow that those who are only able to speak their native language and are communicating with those who are speaking in a foreign language are therefore less able to see the world from a different point of view? Are native speakers more ethnocentric in their view of the world?

9. They are likely to be less aware of the mechanics of how their own language works 

Noam Chomsky (1957) suggested that native speakers had a level of linguistic competence where language knowledge is internalized. They do not have to think about what tense to use or reflect on the syntax of their spoken sentence. Everything is natural and automatic to them.

But might automaticity breed complacency?

A Korean student of mine took a holiday in France and was coming back into the UK for three months before going back to Korea. At passport control, he was asked, “How are you going to occupy yourself for the next 3 months?”.

The idiomatic use of ‘occupy’ followed by a reflexive pronoun confused my student and panicked him. Despite being an Upper Intermediate (B2) user of English, he was stumped and couldn’t speak a word. The immigration officer seemed annoyed that despite stating that he had been studying English for a year in the UK, my student didn’t appear to be at all proficient.

If the immigration officer had changed his questioning tactic and opted for a more ‘globally understood English’ e.g. ‘What are you going to do for the next 3 months?’, my student might have been able to answer the question more satisfactorily.

The lack of awareness of his own language use has prevented him from successfully questioning the non-native speaker. By speaking to him in idiomatic speech seemed to only fuel miscommunication and insecurity.

Clive.jpg

10. They might confuse language ability with cultural knowledge.

So much of what we say is infused with cultural references. And when your language is so much part of your day-to-day speech, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between what parts of language require cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) and what doesn’t.

In Norton’s (2000) case studies, one of her subjects, Eva, a Polish immigrant in Canada who was working at a fast food restaurant was quickly ignored when it became clear that she didn’t understand her colleague’s socially-referenced comment about Bart Simpson.  She was then assigned menial tasks that didn’t require her to interact with anyone.

In a native-speaker environment, the inability to understand the cultural and social references common to that environment’s native speakers could lead to breakdowns in communication. The non-native speakers’ English proficiency is often then blamed for the failure to understand those references.

In an international environment where the native speaker is no longer the majority, making cultural references could not only cause confusion, but could make those involved feel awkward.

I’ve seen teacher trainees new to the profession trying to build rapport with new students by making references to Heston Blumenthal, strawberry trifle, the white van man, and even Guy Fawkes. I’ve heard native speakers in international meetings making jokes that nobody in the room understood. I’ve seen an English person trying explain why he’s described someone as ‘such a red coat’ (a reference to entertainers working for the British holiday village Butlins) and when it was clear that it was causing more confusion, the English person said , “But I thought you said you were fluent?”

There is a huge difference between being proficient in English, and being proficient with English culture, and although sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference, it’s important that the native speaker learns to do so or communicating internationally might become an issue.

strawberry-trifle

While there are many reasons why international communication might be difficult for the monolingual native speaker (and I recognize that there are also many native speakers who aren’t monolingual, but certainly a great number of them are), it certainly does not mean they should be resigned to it.

In my next post, I will look at some ways that native speakers and the organisations they work for can help them speak better English for international communication.

To read more on the subject, please look at a copy of my book, Successful International Communication, published in December 2018.

Bibliography 

Whorf, B. (1956) Carroll, John B., ed., Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press

Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. The Hague/Paris: Mouton

Bourdieu, P. (1986) ‘The forms of capital.’ Reprinted in S. Ball (ed.) (2004) The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Sociology of Education. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Norton, B. (2000) Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Essex: Pearson Education.

See also this BBC article which was partly inspired by this series of blogposts.

And

Chong, C.S. (2018) Successful International Communication, Pavilion Publishing.

5 reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally

The following post was first published on etprofessional.com in March 2016 and quickly became a topic of controversy even amongst native-speaking English teachers. This post went on to win the British Council Teaching English blog of the month award, and is the first part of a 4-parter.

You can read Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

Perhaps it’s important for me to clarify before you read the post that this post is not aimed at criticising native speakers, but hopefully will serve to raise awareness of this issue and highlight the fact that native speakers can’t rest on their laurels and assume they are the best communicators simply because their mother tongue happens to be the global language. Communication training is something that everyone can benefit from, and is not only for those communicating in their second or third language.

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When we think about teaching English to native speakers, we often either think about teaching linguistics and the mechanics of language, or about teaching English literature.

And when we think about the TEFL industry, we often focus on those who speak English as a foreign or second language (Hence the acronym TEFL).

But perhaps there is another sector that we have left out: the teaching of English to native speakers who will be using English internationally.

As English becomes the lingua franca of business and trade, education, and tourism, there are growing communities of people using English to communicate internationally with both native and non-native speakers.

Communicating with people from different backgrounds who have different views of the world, different ways of ‘encoding messages’, and different assumptions and expectations can pose its own set of problems. Intercultural communication by nature is already fraught with the endless potential for misunderstandings and conflict. But non-native speakers of English, albeit from different language and cultural backgrounds, have an understanding of what it means to be communicating in a language that is not their mother tongue. And native speakers on the other hand are at a disadvantage when it comes to using English internationally.

It seems ironic to consider the fact that native speakers now perhaps need language training to communicate internationally in their own native tongue. Here are five reasons why.

But before we begin, allow me to post this disclaimer: Despite my name and skin colour, I am a native speaker of English and am by no means writing this post to criticise or put down other native speakers. I am merely seeing a skills/knowledge gap that the public sector and companies need to consider training their staff in.

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1. In international communication, native speakers are sometimes the ones least understood.

Academics who discuss the phenomenon of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) often recount this familiar anecdote: A large group of directors from different countries are sat together for a meeting in English. Although English is their second or third language, they seem to get by perfectly fine and they all understand what each other is saying. Then an American or British person walks into the room and starts chatting away. Everyone looks at each other and no one seems to understand him/her!

So why are native speakers more prone to not being understood? Here are some reasons why: they tend to speak quickly; they use a lot of idiomatic language, they make use of humour and irony, some of which depend on a play on words, and they often require their listeners to infer from what is being said.

 

2. Many do not know what it’s like to communicate in a second language.

It might be a generalisation but many native speakers of English have never learnt another language, and many of those who have, did so at a Secondary school level and never had to actually communicate in their second language.

This means that their expectations of a non-native speaker speaking in English might be inflated and misguided. They are less tolerant of mistakes and they expect non-native speakers to be as in control of certain linguistic aspects as they are.

I’ve seen more than one native speaker trying to talk to my intermediate students about the different accents and dialects in the UK. They ask them questions like, ‘Which is your favourite accent?’, ‘Don’t you think the Scottish accent sounds sexy?’, ‘Have you learnt the Cockney Rhyming Slang?’ and ‘You should try and learn to speak with Queen’s English. It’s more proper.’

Have you ever tried to tell the difference between accents in a foreign language? Especially when you are not an advanced user? Deciphering the content of what is said is preoccupation enough. There is no necessity to complicate matters.

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3. Native speakers sometimes struggle more with understanding different foreign accents.

I remember this one lesson about the second conditional I had when I first started teaching. I had asked the question, “If you could watch a film tonight, which film would you watch?”

The student I had nominated to answer the question smiled and muttered something that I couldn’t understand. I asked the student to repeat what they had said, but to no avail. So I asked her to repeat I again. And again. And again. But I still had no clue what she was saying.

Yet every single person in that multinational class seemed to understand her without a problem. Soon, I had the entire class shouting the name of this film at me. And I was none the wiser. It took me a full five minutes before I realized my student had wanted to watch ‘Resident Evil’.

Learners of English have a higher chance of encountering speakers of other languages who speak English with different accents. This could be through their multi-cultural English classes, or their multi-cultural English coursebooks. Those that use English for work tend to communicate with people from countries different to their own. They are therefore more likely to understand English speakers from different language backgrounds.

Native speakers who do not have the opportunity to encounter a variety of nationalities often find it hard to understand certain foreign accents. Being the ‘native speaker’, it is easy to blame this difficulty on the speaker’s ‘bad pronunciation’ or ‘bad English’ and not on their own lack of exposure. 

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4. They might not be as charitable towards low-level users.

During my MA, I conducted research on the perception of politeness in the polite requests made by non-native speakers. And the results were overwhelming.

The native-speaker respondents were much more unforgiving, saying things like, “She’s so rude!” and “That was a bit abrupt!”

The non-native respondents were much more understanding, saying things like, “I don’t think she intends to be rude. I think she doesn’t know how to say it,” and “She might be nervous about speaking in English and in that moment, she forgot how she had wanted to say things.”

When questioned, some of the more proficient English users said they were non-native speakers and they remembered what it feels like to try and speak English when they weren’t good at it.

In my paper, I termed it the ‘principle of charity’. And non-native speakers were much more likely to apply it than native speakers. Native speakers on the other hand seemed to lack patience and empathy towards low-level English speakers.

Native speakers tend to have a clear sense of ‘good English’ and ‘bad English’, and this isn’t surprising as English is the language they were brought up in. They therefore have emotional and psychological connections to the different types of English used. They are more likely to be intolerant of what they perceive as ‘pidgin English’ and are less forgiving of language variation.

 

5. Those who have never learnt another language are less aware of the language learning process. 

A student of mine told his English colleague that he was attending English classes and his colleague asked him, “Does your English teacher teach you to use good words like ‘discombobulate’?”

Those involved in language learning and teaching would know that this English colleague has totally missed the point. English classes aren’t about teaching students to use big bombastic words.  They are about teaching learners to communicate more effectively.

Another student was asked by an immigration officer at passport control, “Why are you coming here to study more English? You were studying English for six months last year. Isn’t that enough? You should be able to speak English by now!”

I wonder how many languages this immigration officer learnt in six months.

However, we should of course not be blaming the individual officer for his lack of knowledge and ability to communicate internationally. Instead, we should be looking at the UK Border Agency as a public organisation who could be setting aside their training budget and be sending their frontline staff to communication and language workshops where they are trained to speak to non-native speakers more effectively.

In my next post, I look at another five reasons why the English native speaker might need to learn English to communicate internationally, before exploring the ways a native English speaker can become a more effective international communicator.

To read more on the subject, please look at a copy of my book, Successful International Communication, published in December 2018.

IATEFL Manchester Pecha Kucha Photo Credits

Here are the credits and links to the photos I have used via Creative Commons for my Pecha Kucha presentation at IATEFL Manchester 2015.

 

Heart, love and gratitude – ELTpics, photo by Hana Ticha

Students in class with teacher reading – by Ilmicrofono Oggiono

Point and laugh – by Ross Pollock

Happy students – by Nicholas Chan

The Impossible Triangle – by Michael

Brain puzzle – by Toca Boca; artwork by Gustav Dejert

Please do not feed the animals – ELTpics, photo by Roseli Serra

I want YOU to use grammar – by Scnal

I’m with stupid – by Seth Anderson

Hello, my name is – via Deviant Art by Roninmakeswaffles

Ponder – by Hobias Sudoneighm

 

Making a point, Bologna – by Todd Mecklem

Shock by Jannemei

Cool Rasta, Cool Leicester – on Flickr by Gabi Whitthaus.

 

Earth, Continents, Global, Home – on Pixabay by Geralt, 6898 Images

Facepalm – on Wikipedia.

Tired Villy by Tambako the Jaguar

David Crystal from Wikimedia

The Apprentice via Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Misuse of Silence

First of all, I must apologise for the silence on this blogsite for the last year.

Aside from starting a new family, I also have been blogging fortnightly for http://www.etprofessional.com and therefore have taken a break from this blogsite.

However, I’m back from the silence with a re-post of this blogpost, first published on etprofessional.com:

Silence is a powerful tool and can be used to achieve varying effects both in the classroom and out.

And perhaps feeling its power but not fully understanding its potential, many newly-qualified teachers treat silence like how radio DJs regard dead air – with great fear, discomfort and panic. Those intimidated by silence are often keen to anxiously fill every moment of it with unnecessary and uninteresting chitchat (see 1), running commentary (see 2), rushed eliciting (see 3), or finishing learners’ sentences for them (you don’t need an example for this one because we all know someone who does this).

  • Unnecessary and uninteresting chitchat

    What the teacher says: (While the learners are doing an activity on their own) By the way, this is my first time taking an advanced class, and you know, well, I really shouldn’t tell you this, but you know, I’ve got to be honest and true to myself, right? Apparently, I’m not very good at pretending any way, or that’s what I’ve been told, and many people who know me say that about me, and you know, to be honest, as far as I’m concerned, I would say I would agree…

    What the student hears: This is my first time taking an advanced class and blah blah blah…not very good…blah blah blah…I want you to complete this exercise but I also want you to listen to me. And if you can’t do both, I want to make it difficult for you to do either of them.

  • Running commentary

    What the teacher says: I’m going to take the OHP projector and put it right here, in front of the screen. Oh it’s a little too far to the right. I think I should move it a little more this way, ah yes, that’s better I think. I don’t normally use the OHP projector and I find it quite fiddly.
    Now, where did I put my OHP acetates? Oh my, why am I so forgetful? I always do this. I think they are in my bag. Oh yes, here they are. They are in the front pocket of my bag, where I usually put my stationery. Oh, this acetate has a fold in it. It doesn’t look too professional does it? Oh well, too late now. Can’t help it. Well, it’s just a fold anyway, it shouldn’t bother you.
    I’m going to put the acetate on the projector and there you go. It’s on. And I’m going to cover half of it with a sheet of paper. Where’s that sheet of paper I had prepared? I thought I left it on my desk…

    What the student hears: I’m going to blah blah blah…projector…blah blah blah…my bag…blah blah blah…projector…blah blah blah…

  • Rushed eliciting

    What the teacher says: What tense do we need when we are talking about an action that continues until now and might still be continuing? The Present Perfect Continuous. Yes, the Present Perfect Continuous. That’s what we use.
    And how do we form it? Well, what auxiliary is used in Perfect tenses? ‘Have’. Yes, ‘have’. We use ‘have’ in all Perfect tenses, don’t we? Yes.
    And then we need the Past Participle of the verb ‘to be’. What do you think that might be? ‘Been’, yes ‘been’ is the Past Participle of ‘to be’. And then we now need the Continuous aspect, so what do we need? The ‘-ing’ form. Yes, we need the ‘-ing’ form. And what is the ‘-ing’ form of the verb sleep? ‘Sleeping’!
    So put it all together, ‘I have been sleeping’. Yes, there you have it, ‘I have been sleeping’. Do you understand?

    What the student hears : What tense do we need when blah blah? The blah…yes, the blah. And now, I’m not going to give you time to think, but instead I’m going to show you that I know a lot about English and you don’t. Auxiliary. Past Participle. Been. Continuous Aspect. I have been sleeping. There you have it. Do you understand?

In the classroom, silence is often the necessary space between input and output, and it gives learners the time to think about what has just been said and to think about how to then formulate a response. It is an essential part of the learning experience in a language classroom, and a crucial step when eliciting answers from students.

Moving out of the controlled learning environment of a classroom, however, silence can have many functions, and the use of silence in discourse might not often be as positive.

Fairly recently, I got into a taxi in Singapore and after telling the taxi driver my destination, I was faced with a wall of silence. To confirm that he had heard me, I repeated my destination. Again, this was met with silence. He started driving and I thought it best sit back and enjoy the journey. But I was left wondering, ‘Has he understood me? Is he driving towards my destination? Was he in a bad mood? Does he hate me?’

 

I was again confronted with a similar situation when I went for lunch at a Thai restaurant the next day. When we tried to order, our server wrote silently in her note pad and then walked away, leaving us puzzled and frustrated. Was her silence meant to represent respect or subservience? Was there perhaps an intercultural misunderstanding going on here?

That same day, another similar occurrence took place when we went to do a bit of shoe shopping in the middle of Chinatown. Wanting to try on some of the shoes in my size, I approached a sales assistant and asked, ‘Could you help me with those shoes over there? I would like to try them on.’ She stayed silent but had what I interpreted as a half-smile on her face. So I turned to walk towards the shoes, only to realize that she wasn’t following me. I walked back, puzzled, and repeated my request, and this time, she muttered, ‘Ask my colleague over there.

Was silence her way of shutting me out of her world? Perhaps she did not engage me so that she could continue pretending that I hadn’t asked her a question.

But why would she want to pretend I wasn’t there?

Although Singapore is an English-speaking country, conversational exchanges in places like Chinatown are often conducted in Mandarin. In a Mandarin-dominated environment, perhaps she was intimidated by the prospect of having to speak English to someone. Her insecurity about her own language might have led to her shutting down and hiding behind the comfort of silence.

This got me thinking about our less-confident language students, who might shy away from interactions in English outside the classroom. As a default response to any conversational gambits or scenario that might lead to feelings of embarrassment due to their insufficient mastery of English, the second-language speaker might employ silence, not because they planned to do so, but because it is a safety net, a security blanket, a comforting shell that they can retreat into.

But unbeknownst to the silent interlocutor, their reticence could be interpreted as being uncommunicative, disinterested, rude, and even moody.

And if this second-language user encounters English at work and needs to use the language to carry out his/her job satisfactorily, like the taxi driver, the waitress at the Thai restaurant, or the sales assistant at the shoe shop, the misuse of silence could have disastrous results.

As science fiction writer A. A. Attanasio so aptly puts it, “Silence is a text easy to misread”.

So we should perhaps teach our learners what their silence could mean.

In-Company training versus In-School training

First of all, allow me to apologise for the long hiatus I have taken from this blogsite.
I have been blogging regularly, but for the website ETprofessional.com
and would now like to make up for my absence from my own website by re-blogging some of my previous posts published on ETprofessional.com

The first of which is a very personal account on my experience moving from teaching at a language school to doing in-company training.

Leadership - mentoring

Most CELTA courses briefly touch on the teaching of Business English and in-company teaching, but most CELTA centres are language schools where Teaching Practice is naturally conducted with students who are within the school compound.

The only time CELTA trainees get to have a taste of what it might be like to be an in-company trainer is when they actually get a job teaching in company. And the first day as a newly qualified teacher being surrounded by the piercing stares of men in ties and women in suits can be more intimating than being confronted by a difficult grammar question.

Along with my recent move from London to Munich, my teaching context also changed rather drastically, and I was taken out of a comfort zone that I had firmly established for myself over the 10 years of teaching in language schools in London.  I was now plunged into a world of in-company teaching. I hope that in sharing my experience, it will help pave the way for new in-company trainers who do not quite know what to expect.

Having taught years of Business English and trained Business English trainers in Cert IBET courses, on top of having dabbled in some in-company work in London during my early days as a teacher, I knew to expect logistical variation from my career shift. But ultimately, I had believed that the difference between a language classroom or a company meeting room was simply a matter of geography.

I soon found out that geography was no small matter. Geography can determine the facilities available to you. It can affect class atmostphere, rapport and motivation levels. Geography could affect attendance. But before I go into the differences, let me outline the nature of my two different teaching contexts.

My teaching contexts

The language school I worked for in London is a well-respected institution that has a steady flow of students registered to have classes for an intensive period of time. For General English students, this period could last from 2 weeks to a year. Class sizes go from 1 to 15. In our Executive Centre, many of the Business English students are subsidized by either their government or their company to work on their level of English, and usually would stay for a period of 2 weeks to 3-4 months.  Classes are smaller in the Executive Centre, and had a maximum of 6 clients, and lessons took place everyday. Each lesson would usually last for 2-3 hours, and some students might have 2 lessons a day.

As an in-company trainer in Germany, I would travel to different companies on different days of the week for lessons that are usually held in one of their company meeting rooms. A productive day would involve 2 or more classes taking place in the same company on the same day, which would essentially save me travelling time.  Classes are usually 90 minutes to 2 hours long, although on occasion, there would be intensive days of 6-10 hours, especially for courses dealing with specific soft skills such as Presentation English or Negotiations in English. Classes do not usually contain more than 6 students.

Perhaps saying that my move to in-company training was a culture-shock might be a bit of an exaggeration, but here are some of the things I quickly learnt about in-company training.

 

Diverse business group meeting

 

Facilities

 In a language school, one might be equipped with Interactive White Boards, CD players or some kind of multimedia player, and even computers. Wifi connection is often provided, and students often have access to the internet through 3G on their smartphones.

When teaching in company, be prepared for lessons with little more than a flip chart. Markers are usually provided, but bring your own just in case. White boards are not common, which means that any exercise which involves rubbing away parts of sentences or phrases will need to be rethought.

CD players and multimedia players are not always provided, so if you are relying on a listening activity or a video clip, make sure you have it on your iPad or laptop and bring it in yourself.

Many companies don’t allow visitors to have access to the company’s wifi due to security reasons. Some go to the extent of putting up firewalls so that you (or your students) do not have 3G access on your smartphones while in the building. In some cases, you could request to have a special password which might allow you access from certain terminals, but if you plan to show students a particular website, taking screen shots beforehand, and printing them, or pulling them up on your iPad might save you a lot of hassle.

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Attitude and Motivation

Students could seem less motivated. It is likely that these students have not paid for these lessons, nor have they travelled a long way to get to their lessons. Some they might be in the dark as to why they have been sent for language training.

The fact that they are in their own home ground and within their own office building means that their mind would always be partially on that urgent reply they need to give their clients or that proposal they need to read and sign off before midday. You can’t blame them for not switching off completely because they are technically still at work.

Not only do they have trouble switching off mentally, getting them to switch off their devices might be a tough call too. Expect interruptions from ringing mobile phones and buzzing pagers. That student who is constantly glancing at his watch may have a meeting to rush to straight after the lesson. We even had a client who once attended an hour-long conference call during his lesson. And disciplining students regarding the right classroom etiquette might not be appropriate. That million-dollar contract may be more important than coming to grips with the Present Perfect Continuous.

 

Communication Skills rather than tenses

Conversely, some say that in-company learners can often be more motivated than General English in-school students if their learning is directly applied to the working environment around them. This would mean doing a more detailed Needs Analysis at the beginning of the course and finding out why and how they might need to use English. Avoid teaching language for the sake of teaching language, and focus on helping learners improve their ability to communicate.

Prepare lessons that are directly related to what they are doing at work. You can:

  • Adapt published ELT materials so that tasks are current and relevant to the learners.
  • Make use of authentic materials, e.g. news articles, case studies, infographics, TED talks, etc as a springboard to discussions, skills practice and language input.
  • Consider tailor-making your own role-plays and get your learners to contribute to creating their own scenarios to enable for more realistic simulations.

Remember that your in-company clients do not necessarily want to be treated like school kids. Games and role plays are great, and can be extremely motivating, but be aware that boring grammar gap fills and following coursebooks to the tee might be less tolerated.

Tailor your lessons to suit your students needs and make them relevant to their use of English.

Four Taylor mannequines.

 

Attendance

Attendance can be sporadic. You might have two students one week, and then two completely different students the week after. This might make revision and recycling of language extremely difficult but bear in mind that there are many factors that could affect your learners’ ability to attend:  company trips, important meetings, annual leave, the odd days off sick are all part and parcel of in company classes.

For the same reasons, students could have issues with being on time for classes. Despite this, in-company clients are not always tolerant of the class overrunning, and a teacher not keeping to the specified times. Understandably, if you have urgent work that needs to be attended to, or a lunch appointment with your manager, you might be less likely to leap for joy when your English teacher gives you an extra 10 minutes of class.

 

Homework

With all their daily responsibilities surrounding them, you might find some students less inclined to revise or do their homework. Some might even find the idea of homework reminiscent of their yawn-inducing rebellion-encouraging school years.  Several trainers have found that re-naming homework ‘action points’ or ‘tasks’ and ensuring that homework tasks continue to be interesting and relevant to the client’s work could help get around this tricky issue.

 

What ‘geography’ can also mean

Finding your way to the company could require some navigation skills, especially if you are new to the country you are teaching in. But thank goodness for transport and navigation apps on smartphones, because now, a person with no sense of direction like myself can somehow make my way there.

Once you get there, you might need a visitor’s pass in order to enter the building, and you often have to make known to reception the person you are here to see. Taking the above into consideration, ensure that you allow for travelling time and for the time it would take for you to be collected at reception.

Making use of a company meeting room as your classroom could mean last minute room changes, or even interruptions during a lesson due to confusion in room bookings.

It is quite common for in-company lessons to run for 90 minutes to an hour without a break, emulating a company meeting. If you are scheduled for two different 90-minute lessons, back-to-back, this could mean teaching three hours straight without a break for you. Don’t be shy about asking your second lot of students if it’s okay you have a five-minute break. And make sure you keep it to five minutes.

Unlike intensive courses where you see your students every day for a short period of time, most in-company courses occur once a week over a longer duration. I know a trainer who has been with the same group of students for more than 3 years! Although, this might mean that students could take several weeks before they warm up to you, this also means that you are able to truly get to know them and their area of work, and to shape their progress in a way that ensures that they are indeed making improvements to the way they are communicating in English at work.

Portrait of business people discussing a new strategy

 

Most importantly, try not to be intimidated by the piercing stares of the men and women in suits that are your students. Make sure you dress smartly and look professional, and remember: You might not be an expert in their field, but you are certainly the expert in dealing with language and communication issues. And with your expertise, you can help them do their job better.