Communication Challenges for Non-Native English Speakers (ESL)

I really got to understand what it meant to be highly competent and really challenged by a language barrier when I trained in dance in 1998-99, in Switzerland.  I thought I understood the language.  I did not.  Oh, my, the first three weeks were exhausting, working in German, 8 hours a day.  I did catch up on the language, but it also made me reflect on a few things about language, culture, and how our sense of self is impacted by how we speak, and what language we speak.

We often think of language as being just a grammar exercise, that we have to intellectually learn, but working in a second language really brings to bear how deep language runs into our sense of cultural norms, how we frame ideas, and even how our sense of self occurs.  

The biggest frustration I had in those first few weeks in Switzerland, was to be able to carry on intelligent conversations on complex topics.  I imagine it might be how a baby feels: lost in a world without language to be heard and understood intelligently.  

For adults who transition to a new country in their work, sometimes confidence plummets, or the stress of just being heard or listened to is a challenge.  

Let's look at the main challenges you face as an international business professional, when you are working in a second language. 

1. The melody of languages varies widely

The melody that someone frames competency, politeness, and social greetings with varies widely in different languages.  Swiss German rolls up and down hills and valleys. Hindi is as intricate in melody as a Tantric tapestry, and Pharsee swoops and glides.  English sort of waddles into the room like a farmer from Wales and sits down at the pub table.  By comparison, it is a rather ungainly duck, as melodies go. 

We tend to carry over the melody of our mother tongue into the new language, which causes confusion.

2. Speed and rhythm contrasts to your mother tongue

Urban Chinese speak at a rapid fire pace, which is considered polite and well mannered.  To the Canadian, US, or British ear, it seems like they've just walked through rush hour in Beijing, and aren't really sure what happened.  Hindi is also a very quick language, as is Urdu.  

If speed carries from one language to the next, it again, causes confusion to the listener, who is accustomed to listening at a different pace.  

3. speech muscles contract in different patterns

Put your hands on your belly.  Say the sounds b, t, s, m.   Notice how your abdomen moves differently with each sound.  

Every language organizes a different pattern of consonants and vowels, that we become accustomed to. Chinese sits very far forward in the mouth, with massive flexion of the tongue and lips, while saying I in English is a wide open mouth with the sound sitting in the back. 

Not only are your facial muscles, cheek muscles, tongue, and throat having to adapt to new sound patterns and changes with a new language, but your whole abdominal wall does as well.  

4. Your sense of self feels off

With all of your muscles contracting in different patterns, at different speeds, and with different rhythms to what you are accustomed to in your mother tongue, you are bound to 'feel' funny speaking another language.

If you had to walk in a completely different way from the way you do every day, just to have a conversation, it would feel funny.  Imagine if you had to adapt to a new walk every time you walked into a room, to meet the pace of the people in the room.  That is essentially what your body is doing when you flip from one language to another.  

The fact that your whole body has to adapt to different language patterning in the musculature, is in part why the sense of self seems different when you embed yourself in different languages. Yes, there are cultural differences, but the physicality of the language is completely changed. Polish has a completely different set of consonant patterns to Canadian English, and if you are speaking Japanese, it will have yet another a completely different pace to typical Canadian speech pacing.

5. Ideas are introduced differently

Every culture has a very different 'norm' to the process of expressing respect, accomplishment, or even giving directions.

In Japanese speakers, deference and saving face lends a great deal of detailed propriety to the pace and flow of the conversation.  For Pharsee speakers, Hindi, and Urdu speakers, the history of flowing, poetic, grandiose descriptions takes the day.  To just say things matter of factly would be considered almost rude, and so the conversation rotates and spins in glorious intricate stories.  For a native Pharsee speaker, there is a need to bring grand statements, and to describe things in great terms.  

In Canada, ideas, by comparison to many cultures, ideas are described with a lot of facts, some story, but without a great deal of fanfare.