Here’s a fact we probably all know: people who speak English as a second language outnumber those who speak English as a first language. That English is a lingua franca, and that speakers from inner-circle countries such as the US and the UK are in the minority, is nothing new. This has a number of implications, one of which is that L1 English speakers may not be successful communicating in English with those from outer circle (e.g. India, Nigeria) or expanding circle countries (e.g. China, Brazil). In fact, there have been some arguments that L1 English speakers need to learn international communication skills. ETProfessional published a series of articles detailing the reasons why L1 English speakers need to learn to speak internationally. Indeed, I published my own thoughts on this topic here. The why is clear, but the how is another story. Luckily, Nicholas Subtirelu and Stephanie Lindemann (2016) have shed some light on the research and review a number of insightful and effective strategies.
There is research that suggests that prejudice and negative opinions towards L2 speakers actually interferes with comprehension. This may be an attitude towards language, but often times it is an attitude directed more towards race or national origins. There is research to suggest that it is possible to reduce negative attitudes. One method is based on intergroup contact theory, where “prejudice could be reduced via contact between groups under optimal conditions, including equal status between groups, common goals shared by both groups, cooperative interaction across groups, and institutional validation”. An example if this is one study that had undergraduate students work with international teaching assistants (4-5 domestic US students, 2 teaching assistants in each group) to solve a puzzle. The students rated the teaching assistants positively in terms of teaching than did a control group. Unstructured contact, such as during study abroad, is likely to have the same effects, but any intentional intervention should be structured.
Another method is perspective-taking, in which you develop empathy and understanding through exercises that put you in the others’ shoes. These exercises might include watching a video in which someone is treated unfairly because of their race, religion, or ethnicity. Another might be role-playing, for example, a restaurant role-play in which some participants were managers and some were workers who received undecipherable instructions, mimicking low-proficiency kitchen staff. Teaching speakers about the language learning process, including its struggles, is another method that has been used, as has writing from the perspective of an “outgroup member”. There is research that suggests a reduction in negative attitudes does not just apply towards the target race or ethnicity used in the exercise but can become more generalizable to other groups, too.
Despite this research, there has not been any solid findings in terms of increased comprehension or communication of L2 speakers through these methods. However, they do perceive their understanding is better, and this may be important because perception of misunderstanding may cause avoidance of communication with L2 speakers.
L2 Speech Comprehension
Another suggested method is to actually expose L1 English speakers, either directly or indirectly, to L2 speech. ESL teachers who work with students from a variety of countries are often better at understanding L2 speakers due to this type of exposure. Grammar and vocabulary certainly play a role, it is often pronunciation features that cause the biggest issues. While some researchers have shown improvements through explicit instruction such as learning different phonological features of L2 varieties (e.g. Indian English, Vietnamese English), others have not. The results regarding explicit instruction are mixed. Implicit training through exposure to L2 varities may be more effective. A number of studies have pointed to listeners adapting through interaction or transcriptions. In fact, a study that has been replicated several times has shown this type of training is generalizable to accents that participants were not trained on.
This evidence does not come without its caveats. Namely, most of the research was done based on transcription, and it is not clear how transcription relates to real-time comprehension, nor its impact on overall effective communication.
Another important area deals with what actually happens during communication, including breakdowns and repairs. Many L1 English speakers lack international communication skills. The use of rapid speech, culture-infused contextual references, slang, and idiom usage are some of the reasons. Couple this with negative attitudes or little exposure to other accents or language varieties and its easy to see why the research supports this.
Research on English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) has uncovered a number of insights into how successful intercultural communication actually happens. This includes being flexible and cooperative during communication, and trying to avoid “raising the issue of linguistic shortcomings”. There is a “let it pass” phenomenon in ELF communication where misunderstandings are acceptable so long as they happened during “lower stakes” parts of communication. L1 English speakers have used this strategy as well, but as a way to avoid all misunderstandings to the point of missing important information or lying about understanding. Competent ELF speakers let it pass to a degree but when mistakes arise, they engage in collaborative repair. It is suggested that L1 English speakers, during communication difficulties, work on considering the causes of misunderstanding rather than avoiding them altogether. Repetition without repair does not ameliorate the issue.
Comprehension checking and linguistic accommodation (i.e. not using the slang and idioms mentioned before) were also successful strategies, but could backfire if a speaker misjudged their colleagues ability and dumbed things down to the point of being rude or insulting. Unfortunately, research on ELF may not be applicable to L1 English speakers, and much of these ideas assume L1 English speakers simply lack communication skills when the case may be that they are just not (or not willing, depending on attitude) to employ them.
Effective intervention strategies, whether they are linguistic or attitudinal, exist, even though more research is needed. They may also be necessary, as there are difficulties that arise on college campus – the constant complains by students who cannot understand faculty or ITAs (read this Slate article about Subtirelu’s related research as well), other students – and even for airline pilots. Again, the why is known, and now that we know the how, when and where beg the question.The real difficulty is the practical application of this. Students on a college campus cannot be surveyed to determine who are the most prejudice and incompetent cultural communicators. This type of targeted intervention is neither ethical nor warranted. However, there are a number of things that I think could possibly help:
- Study Abroad – study abroad should be a major priority for universities, as it comes with a number of benefits, one of which deals with intergroup contact as well as perspective taking
- International Communication Courses – universities could offer international communication courses as a gen-ed course. This could be beneficial for anyone who plans to work in an international field (e.g. business) or a field in which there is great diversity in terms of foreign-born faculty or post-grads (e.g. physics).
- First Year Studies – A number of universities offer “First Year Studies” courses – elective courses that serve as a kind of extended orientation where students learn valuable time management and study skills, as well as learning about important university resources. If these courses contained a great number of international students, especially if classes were mixed or all classes contained some internationals, they could have a profound effect on all participants.
With more and more varieties of English becoming commonplace on and off campus, its important to consider whether we want to be left out of the global conversation or participate in it. Teaching and learning international communication skills may be one place to start.
Subtirelu, N. C. & Lindemann, S. (2016). Teaching first language speakers to communicate across linguistic difference: Addressing attitudes, comprehension, and strategies. Applied Linguistics, 37(6), 765-783. Retrieved from here.