This is the third article in a series called “Improving Communication with Foreign Co-workers.” In the original article, I talked about how we should resist the urge to reduce the challenges that are associated with communicating with foreign co-workers or employees down to simply being a linguistic deficiency on the part of the foreigner. In this article, I’ll go into more detail about how various types of linguistic nuances such as linguistic register, collocations, reductions, pace, and idiom usage can have a significant impact in causing communication problems with foreign co-workers speaking English as a Second Language or ESL.
Linguistic register refers to level of formality a person’s choice of words is associated with. Look at these three examples:
1) It’s dangerous to swim here.
2) The water at this location is not safe for swimming.
3) Dangerous conditions exist that prohibit safe swimming.
All three communicate a similar idea but all three convey the message with increasingly higher levels of formality. Clearly, the last example is appropriate for a public sign but would be a rather awkward way to communicate in an informal conversation. However, that is certainly not to imply that it is not useful to know how to communicate in a more formal manner. All three are perfectly acceptable ways to communicate the same idea but knowing when and how to use each manner of expression separates a novice user of English from a more sophisticated one. Depending on the level of competency and experience a foreign speaker has with English, it is quite likely that at least some would not clearly understand what’s being communicated in the second example and many would likely not know what’s being communicated at all in the final example. Foreigners that learn English as a second language often acquire a type of macro-level, vanilla vocabulary that often serves them adequately in being able to communicate basic ideas but lack the ability to understand and communicate with the subtlety that is required in more sophisticated situations.
Collocations refer to the very specific way that some words need to be paired or grouped in order for a certain idea to be accurately expressed. Phrasal verbs (or pairings of a verb with a preposition) are one of the most common forms of collocations (and also one of the most difficult for foreign speakers of English to master). For example, if you want to express to someone that they need to be sure that a particular task is completed, you would say, “Follow through with this.” However, it wouldn’t make sense to say “Follow with this.” “Take out the trash.” isn’t quite the same meaning as, “Take away the trash.” In America, we would say, “Did you have breakfast?” but we wouldn’t say “Did you take breakfast?” When you want to retell a dream you had, you would say, “I had a dream about..” but not “I had a dream with…” There is an ocean of these very specific collocations in the English language that can be next to impossible for all but the most diligent and experienced speakers of English as a second language to master.
Reductions & Pace
One problem that many foreigners discover upon arriving here in the United States is that even if they have diligently studied English extensively prior to relocating to the U.S., they discover that what they studied in their English classes and in their English textbooks doesn’t seem to have much relationship to what real people are saying to them in every day encounters. They discover that English is spoken much more rapidly than they were exposed to in their classroom environment and they also discover that spoken English is often reduced, sometimes quite aggressively. For example, an ESL (English as a Second Language) student might learn something like, “What are you going to do this weekend?” However, when he encounters someone in an American office, he’ll more likely hear; “What’r you gonna do this weekend?” If the reduction is really aggressive, he might encounter something like; “Whatcha gonna do this weekend?” I’ve had students who had come to the U.S. feeling quite confident after having studied English for years both privately and in college in their native country only to feel completely discouraged upon arriving here and speaking to real people on the street. They sometimes feel that they were studying a completely different language than what they are hearing on a daily basis.
Day to day spoken English is saturated with idioms. It’s hard to have a conversation between two Americans that doesn’t include idioms. Even the simplest of common dialogue between people can contain numerous instances of idiom usage. For example, two coworkers encountering each other in the hall on a Monday morning might have a conversation like this:
John: Hey Mike! How’s it going?
Mike: Not bad. What were you up to this weekend?
John: I just hung out with my wife. We threw some dogs on the grill and watched a little ball on tv.
Mike: Pretty low key weekend.
John: It was alright. How bout you? Did you get into any trouble this weekend?
Mike: Nope. Just laid low with some friends.
To a foreigner who hasn’t been in the U.S. very long, that whole conversation would likely make no sense at all. Learning the incredible number of idioms that make up every day language in the U.S. is something that takes years of exposure to English to learn. It is almost impossible for an ESL student to learn idioms by studying idiom guide books formally like some ESL students have often attempted.
Calling yourself to awareness about these common nuances of language that most of us probably never think about can go a long way towards mitigating communication problems when speaking English to foreign co-workers.