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Published: 13th October 2009
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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 was 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. 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. Let's address these communication challenges from each of the first five subareas of communication that I mentioned starting with cultural context.

Cultural Context

I looked up the definition of "language" on and the first definition listed was; "a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition." Notice how language is tied to people belonging to the "same community or nation" or the "same cultural tradition." What can be inferred from this? I think it's clear that simply being able to organize words together does not necessarily constitute effective communication. Language is indeed a cornerstone of communication but it's critical to understand that language is indelibly linked to the culture that it's spoken in. Without this knowledge of the cultural context that a language is spoken in, it's easy for miscommunication to occur. This even happens between two people who are speaking the same native language but come from different cultural perspectives. For example, in Australia it might be perfectly acceptable to joke with someone by poking fun at a personal attribute like his appearance or a personality trait without it seeming offensive while in the United States, such a form of joking can largely be taken as an affront. Understanding how to use language in its cultural context can be a critical factor in how effectively someone communicates. If this is important even when two people speak the same language natively but come from different cultural backgrounds, imagine how critical it is when one person is speaking the language from a second language perspective and is unfamiliar with the cultural context of that language from where it is spoken.

Linguistic Register

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) Swim at your own risk.

3) Swimming prohibited when dangerous conditions exist.

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 is often serves them adequately in informal conversation circumstances 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.

Oral Reduction and 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.

Idiom Usage

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 quite unlikely to learn purely from the context of studying an idiom guide book formally like some ESL students have often attempted.


So, if you are an American company who has foreign expat professionals working among your workforce, how do you address these challenges? Here are two recommendations. First of all, contract the services of a quality ESL provider. Secondly, assume an equal level of accountability for effective communication with foreign expat workers.

Contract with a Quality ESL Provider

It's important to provide linguistic support to your foreign expat workforce by utilizing the services of a quality ESL provider. How do you identify a quality ESL provider? One of the most important attributes of a quality ESL provider is that they place a high priority on identifying and working with highly qualified and experienced ESL teachers. They also pay them commensurately. At the company that I run, Premiere English, I look for teachers that have had significant practical ESL teaching experience abroad. I just feel really strongly that if you want to reach your students, it is critical that you be able to empathize with them by having been in their shoes at some point. To me, a large part of teaching is not merely imparting knowledge, it's connecting and building a rapport with your students and I feel that my years of teaching overseas were of incredible value in helping me to do that. I also believe that a quality ESL provider also does a good job in assessing a company's language needs and then delivering the service effectively not only on the front end (in terms of quality instruction, a well organized program, and professional instructors who prepare effective classes and consistently show up on time) but also on the backend (in terms of accurate record keeping and invoicing). Sadly, many ESL providers are lacking on both ends.

Equal Accountability

It's important for companies that employ foreign expats to put themselves on the same side of the table when it comes to facilitating effective communication. Creating a corporate culture that promotes a heightened level of self-awareness in situations that require an American coworker or superior to communicate or interact with a foreign expat can be incredibly beneficial. By self-awareness, I am referring to monitoring the way you use English when communicating with a foreign expat. Taking care to remove idioms and avoiding reductions when communicating can significantly improve communication. Observing when an expat might look confused by something you said and taking the time to rephrase what you said in more vanilla language can make a big difference. Not only will communication improve, the confidence and comfort level of the foreign expat will improve. Contracting with a quality ESL company to provide cultural awareness and communication consultation can also be of immense value. That is something that my company Premiere English offers all of our clients in addition to ESL instructional services.

When accountability for effective communication is equally distributed between the foreign expat and his American coworkers, communication issues can be significantly reduced if not eliminated. The fundamental key to resolving these communication issues is understanding that language is not the only component to communication.

Chris Franek runs an on-site language services company in Houston called Premiere English that specializes in providing premium English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction as well as Spanish instruction to corporations, companies, businesses, manufacturing facilities,, and private schools. Premiere English also provides consulting to schools and companies regarding how to more effectively communicate and work with foreign expatriates.

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