It is common knowledge that our nation is a nation of immigrants. Because of being recognized around the world as being “The Land of Opportunity,” the U.S. has historically been and continues to be a popular destination for foreigners wanting to come here to learn English and gain experience working for an American company. Historically, many of the associations Americans have had with foreign workers were in the context of them working in a physical labor capacity type job but in more recent decades, an ever growing number are here working in various salaried professional job capacities from engineering to middle management. While their growing presence in the workforce has represented an opportunity for American corporate cultures to gain valuable exposure to alternative non-American approaches to problem solving and thought processes, it has also predictably created communication problems due in large part to the obvious linguistic shortcomings of the foreign expatriates but also in significant part due to the varying degrees of cultural myopia many of us Americans sadly suffer from.
While it is clear that any person who is hired on to be a salaried professional in an American company should rightfully be expected to communicate in English competently, it is far too easy to place the burden of responsibility for effective communication exclusively on the shoulders of the foreign expat worker. I say this because the line of reasoning upon which this misplaced accountability originates from is overly simplistic. It’s easy to blame communication problems with foreign expats merely on the expat’s perceived linguistic deficiencies totally ignoring or forgetting the fact that effective communication is not merely the product of a sterile exchange of language between two people. All to often, it is immediately assumed that the foreign expat is lazy and doesn’t want to learn English properly. There are a lot of subtle but important contributing factors that come into play such as cultural context, linguistic register, collocation, pace of communication, idiom usage, body language cues, and vocal intonation. The first five in that list represent major areas of communication challenge for almost all non-native speakers of English because they are largely learned through authentic experience within that language’s concomitant cultural and social context rather than from a formal linguistic education process. Although many (though certainly not all) foreign expats working here are able to communicate fairly competently from a linguistic standpoint, they often can struggle mightily in the other aforementioned communication areas. There is almost no way that a foreign expat could excel in those other areas of communication in English that for their American counterparts come easily and naturally due to a lifetime of exposure to English in an American social, cultural, and educational context. It’s quite unfair to expect that a foreign expat could acquire that with ease, regardless of his level of education in the English language. If progress is to be made towards resolving these communication barriers, our biased conventional notions will need to be reexamined and refashioned so that accountability is equally distributed. In future posts, we’ll address these communication challenges from each of the first five subareas of communication that I mentioned starting with cultural context.