STEPHANIE HANSON: We've been talking a lot about language. But it's not just linguistic factors that can cause problems when talking to a non-native speaker of English. Sometimes misunderstandings occur because of cultural differences. Now by culture, I'm talking about the beliefs, the values, and the behaviors that a person holds based on the society that they grew up in or their home culture, the norms that were common in their home group. When your assumptions or expectations about these beliefs or behaviors don't match another person's, misunderstandings can occur.
Now, culture is still kind of a tricky word to define. Because we can talk about US culture, but that's still including a lot of people. And we find subcultures within that culture. Midwesterners are different than Southerners, big city culture is different than small town culture. So there's a lot of variance even within a culture. But we can still generally classify US culture and compare it to general classifications of other cultures. And researchers have identified several different classifications or categories for doing this.
One of these is individualist and collectivist cultures. An individualist culture values personal freedom, independence, and privacy, whereas a collectivist culture values the group. Relationships, cohesion, and cooperation are important.
If we look at these two dichotomies on a spectrum, we can see that the US is pretty far on the individualist end of things. And we can see this in common phrases or proverbs in US culture. If you want it done well, do it yourself. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Good fences make good neighbors. And if you can't beat em, join them, with beating them being the preference.
Now, how can this cause a misunderstanding? I have a great example from my own experience studying Spanish in Mexico. I chose to live with a host family, which consisted of a host mom and a host brother, who at the time was about my age. He was 27. And he still lived at home with his mom.
Now, I thought that was a little bit weird. And I didn't understand why he was still living at home. And later, when I was talking with my Mexican language partner, I found out that in Mexican culture it's common for children to live with their parents at home until they get married. And if they never get married, they continue to live at home.
Now when you look at this in terms of individual and collective cultures, this makes a lot of sense. Mexico has a very collectivist culture, where the family and group cohesion is important. And I was looking at it from a very individualist US culture, where I valued self-sufficiency, being on my own in college, being on my own after I graduated, not living with my parents. And so I was misunderstanding that relationship because my expectations were different than the general culture in Mexico.
Another category we can use to classify cultures is high context and low context. A high context culture uses a lot of things implicitly. A lot is understood. You're indirect. You read between the lines. Non-verbal signals can carry a lot of meaning.
In a low context culture, the context isn't as important because people are direct. They're explicit and to the point.
Now, if we view these again on a spectrum, we can see that the US is more on the low context side of things. We tend to cut to the chase. We don't beat around the bush. We say what you mean and mean what you say.
Now, an example of a misunderstanding resulting from this sort of a comparison happened to one of my colleagues when she was teaching English in China. She wanted to do some baking. So she asked the officials at her school if she could use the school kitchen to do some baking. And she was told that they didn't have eggs.
Now, my friend saw eggs in the market. She saw them in the grocery store. She sometimes saw them delivered to the school. So she didn't understand why they were telling her they didn't have eggs.
What she later found out was that the school didn't have an oven, which incidentally is pretty common in China. They don't do a lot of baking. So not a lot of people have ovens. But she didn't know this at the time.
So she had been offering to bring her own supplies. She'd buy her own eggs. She just wanted a place to be able to bake.
And the Chinese officials gave her an indirect response. They were trying to save face. They didn't want to directly admit that they didn't have an oven and risk embarrassing themselves or disappointing their foreign visitor. So they indirectly told her no by saying there were no eggs.
And my friend, of course, coming from a very direct culture, was confused by this. And thought, well, why didn't you just tell me? If you said there is no oven a long time ago, I would have stopped pestering you. So there we see a conflict between high context and low context, direct and indirect communication styles.
There are several other categories for different cultures that can also lead to misunderstandings. How a culture views time, if it's very strict and controlled or if it's more relaxed. How do you consider your control over the environment. If you have an internal locus of control that you can manipulate and control a lot or it's external. You can't do much about things. Your views of power relationships and hierarchies and what importance that plays in interactions.
All of these can cause some cultural misunderstandings or confusion. And I've listed some resources on another part of this website where you can read more about those.
Another cultural factor is something called speech acts. So, for example, how we apologize and what we apologize for varies from culture to culture. The same with complements, who you complement, what's an appropriate complement. How you begin or end a phone conversation, how you agree with someone, how you disagree with someone, all of these are culturally bound.
And we see linguistic factors. There are certain language patterns to a lot of these speech acts, but also cultural expectations. So these are things that can also cause some confusion when you're interacting cross-culturally.
The important thing to remember about culture overall is that it's always present. So much so that most of the time we don't notice it or think about it, that is until something goes wrong.
Now, when we're talking with someone who has accented English, that's a cue to us right away to know, OK, they're from a different background. They're from a different language. You're going to be expecting some differences.
But this can be particularly problematic for a non-native speaker, who has a very high level of English. Someone who doesn't have much of an accent, who has a great command of their vocabulary, and grammar, and speed. We might mistakenly think they're more similar to us than they really are. So don't always assume similarities between people.
If you're in an uncomfortable situation, you can question if culture has something to do with it. Our tendency is to attribute an uncomfortable situation or problem to the specific person we're working with. There's a flaw in their personality or something wrong with that person. But it could also be the bigger issue of culture, that your expectations or assumptions don't match.
I'd like to thank you for joining me in this study room, where we've discussed several strategies you can employ to improve oral communication with non-native speakers of English. Speaking tips, such as slowing down and enunciating more clearly. Vocabulary tips, such as being mindful of idioms and slang and rephrasing when necessary. And listening strategies, such as focusing on what you can understand and listening actively.
We've also reviewed some of the features of English pronunciation that make it difficult for non-native speakers to master. And discussed cultural factors that can also lead to confusion or misunderstandings in cross-linguistic communication.
It's important to remember that this advice will vary for each non-native English speaker. You may encounter people who have a very advanced command of English. Maybe you know someone who sounds like a native speaker, with no discernible accent. He or she may still have difficulties with more obscure vocabulary or slang. Other non-native speakers may have an intermediate or novice level of English speech. This will also vary depending on how much time the person has been studying and speaking English, what their native language is, and what their educational backgrounds are.
No matter the speaker's level, remember that your attitude can go a long way in making the interaction more successful. Be patient and friendly. Put yourself in the other person's shoes, and try not to get flustered. Communication is a two-way street. You both need to negotiate the interaction to effectively listen to and speak with one another.
Finally, take advantage of the international resources around you. To begin with, check out the resources I've listed in other parts of this website. And, more importantly, look at the people around you. No matter where you currently find yourself, you probably interact with non-native speakers on a regular basis, especially for those of you currently on the Cornell campus.
You have a great opportunity here. Learn from one another, exchange ideas, start a dialogue, get to know another person and another culture. It may take a little more work, but expanding your network and ideas cross-culturally can be a very rewarding experience.
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In this Cybertower Study Room, join Stephanie Hanson to learn how to improve our communication with non-native English speakers, explore listening and speaking strategies, and learn about common English difficulties and cultural factors. You'll also hear viewpoints from some international students at Cornell.
Cornell University is committed to providing high-quality education for all students, and the Center for Teaching Excellence's International Teaching Assistant Program plays a vital role in that commitment.
This video 6 of 6 in the Watch Your Language series.