By Chia Suan Chong

25 May 2016 - 05:18

'To communicate successfully in an international environment, you need to be able to grasp what is being said and respond appropriately'.
'To communicate successfully in an international environment, you need to be able to grasp what is being said and respond appropriately'. Photo ©

Mat Wright

Chia Suan Chong, winner of the British Council's Teaching English blog award, offers three strategies to help students use English in international environments.

Most learners of modern languages aim to speak to native speakers and learn more about their culture. Some might learn Italian because they hope to live in Italy and others might learn Greek because they are married to a Greek partner. I learned Japanese because I loved Japanese pop music as a teenager.

English is the language of international communication

English, however, finds itself in a slightly different situation from most modern languages. As the global language of business, trade, education and tourism, English is used to negotiate, manage virtual teams, survive in foreign cities, and share research. It is said that more than 80 per cent of non-native speakers of English are using English to speak to other non-native speakers of English, using English as the lingua franca of international communication.

For some, ELF (English as a lingua franca) represents a simplified ‘dumbed-down’ version of English, but the complex and wonderfully varied nature of international communication suggests otherwise.

To communicate successfully in an international environment, you need to be able to grasp what is being said and respond appropriately; you need to have a degree of intercultural awareness and an ability to detect possible misunderstandings; you also need to reflect on your own norms and expectations, communication styles, and ways of seeing the world; you need to adapt and accommodate different styles of communicating, different levels of proficiency, and different ways of seeing the world; you need to have interpersonal skills that include the ability to build rapport, influence others, handle feedback and resolve conflict.

Here are three activities to help your students develop these skills.

1. Reflecting on critical incidents

Many intercultural trainers start with critical incidents: events that make you stop, think and reflect on your attitudes, beliefs and behaviour. Take the example of Isabella, and consider the questions that follow:

'I was giving a sales presentation to five managers from a multinational company. They looked very happy with my presentation and nodded and said "yes" to nearly every point I made. But when I emailed them later, none of them were interested in buying from me. I just don’t understand.'

(i) What is happening here?
(ii) What are the different meanings attached to the word ‘yes’?
(iii) What can Isabella do in the future?

Teacher’s notes

Isabella comes from a culture (national and/or corporate) that takes ‘yes’ to mean ‘I agree’. But the five managers could be saying ‘yes’ and nodding to mean ‘I understand’. In other words, ‘yes’ doesn’t always signal agreement. If Isabelle needs to check, she could ask questions like, ‘Do you agree?’ or ‘Would you be interested?’

Critical incidents are a great way of generating discussion among students and encouraging reflection. In this example, you're highlighting the importance of clarifying meaning and checking understanding. But in order to move from reflection to solution-oriented practice, you should get students to think about what Isabella could do in future, collect their ideas and discuss with the class at the end.

2. Identifying ambiguity and clarifying meaning

Here is another activity that stresses the importance of clarifying meaning in international communication. Colleagues Gemma and Alessio are discussing Alessio’s stress levels:

Gemma: I think you have too much to do.
Alessio: I know. I have three deadlines this Wednesday and I don't know how I'm going to meet them.
Gemma: You have the report to write, you have to finish your new product design, and…?
Alessio: And I have to organise the factory tour for our visitors from the UK. They’re arriving on Wednesday morning.
Gemma: How about I organise the factory tour for you?
Alessio: It’s okay. Thank you.

On Wednesday morning, Alessio came into the office and was shocked that the factory tour had not been organised. What went wrong?

Teacher’s notes

The issue here is with Alessio’s answer 'It’s okay'. Alessio thinks this means the same as 'Okay' and wants Gemma to help him organise the factory tour. However, 'It’s okay' is often used to mean 'It’s fine, I don’t need any help', and this was Gemma's understanding.

Now get students to role-play the above dialogue making sure that (1) Gemma confirms what she has understood, and (2) Alessio confirms what he thinks was agreed between them and re-states actions that need to be taken.

Misunderstandings like the one between Alessio and Gemma often go unnoticed. Sometimes they're of no consequence, but at other times, like in the example above, they can have a detrimental effect.

Here's a useful checklist for avoiding misunderstandings in international communication:

  • Listen carefully.
  • Don’t make assumptions.
  • Clarify the important points. If there is action to be taken, repeat that at the end of the conversation.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions.
  • Be aware of your conversation partners and their reactions.
  • Consider the different cultures involved and different possible interpretations.

3. Considering different cultural views of the same situation

In addition to misunderstandings, differences in the way people communicate internationally can create negative impressions of others' behaviour. Course books frequently deal with the language of politeness, but there's much more to it than the words we use – we also need to take into consideration the context, expectations and backgrounds of the people involved, the relationship between the speakers, and so on.

Just because the language of international communication happens to be English, it does not mean that the cultures of native English speakers should be the reference point for all users of the language.

Using the following scenarios, and drawing on their own beliefs and expectations, get students to decide how polite or impolite they think the behavior is, and to share their ideas with the class. In a multinational class, this is a great opportunity to learn about different customs and traditions around the world.

i) Mari has been abroad on a business trip for the last two weeks. On her first day back at work, she presents her colleagues and her managers with souvenirs from the country she visited. How would you assess this?

____ Expected and polite behaviour

____ Not expected but nice behaviour

____ Strange and confusing behaviour

____ Impolite behaviour

Teacher’s notes

In some national cultures (e.g., Japan) and in some corporate cultures, it is the norm to bring back presents and treats for everyone in the office when one has been abroad, whether it is on holiday or on business. It is therefore important to know the culture of the company in question. Forgetting to bring back presents when one is expected to can be embarrassing. On the other hand, in other cultures (e.g., Singapore), giving presents to managers could be seen as bribery.

ii) It’s Christina’s birthday, and so she brings a cake into her office for her colleagues to share. Her manager gives her a birthday card signed by her colleagues. How would you assess this?

____ Expected and polite behaviour

____ Not expected but nice behaviour

____ Strange and confusing behaviour

____ Impolite behaviour

Teacher’s notes

In some cultures, it is the norm for the birthday girl/boy to bring the cake, but in others, it is the norm for the colleagues to bring the cake or other birthday treats. In some companies, colleagues will simply give a birthday card, while in others, a gift or a voucher might accompany the card. And some companies don't celebrate the birthdays of employees at all. This is really dependent on both the national and corporate culture.

iii) Ben, a senior manager, is welcoming a new employee, Leon, into the company.

Ben: So Joe, how old are you?
Leon: I’m 26.
Ben: I see. And where are you from?
Leon: I’m from a town in Germany called Bayreuth.
Ben: Ah. How many people are there in your family?
Leon: I have two older brothers.
Ben: No sisters?
Leon: No.
Ben: Girlfriend?
Leon: No, no girlfriend at the moment.

____ Expected and polite behaviour

____ Not expected but nice behaviour

____ Strange and confusing behaviour

____ Impolite behaviour

Teacher’s notes

In some national cultures (e.g., China, Korea), it is appropriate to ask about one’s age or family, even at the first meeting. Although these might be taboo questions in the UK or Europe, it is not uncommon for an older or more senior person in some Asian countries to ask a series of such questions when meeting a young newcomer.

The importance of intercultural communication

While not directly connected to the learning of English pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar, students should be aware of the different ways people use English in international settings.

While ‘soft skills’ have become a staple in many Business English courses, they are also relevant and applicable in general English courses, not to mention communication courses for native speakers of English.

After all, the better we can communicate, the more effective we can be.

The examples (written by Chia Suan Chong) given in this article are also used to supplement the Business English course book Simply Business B1+, published by Cornelsen Schulverlage GmbH. They have been reprinted here with permission.

Teachers, visit our TeachingEnglish website for more lesson plans and activities, and find out how you can become a TeachingEnglish blogger.

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