STEPHANIE HANSON: In the last section, we heard several speaking tips that you can utilize to improve cross-cultural interactions. Something related to speaking is the actual words you use when talking. Vocabulary is an important issue to keep in mind when speaking to someone from another culture. Once again, let's see what advice international students have for native speakers.
SPEAKER 1: Don't use a lot of idioms.
SPEAKER 2: Using fewer idioms will help.
STEPHANIE HANSON: Idioms are notoriously difficult for non-native speakers. An idiom is a phrase that has its own meaning separate from the individual words making up that phrase. Let's take an example, the idiom, "to get cold feet."
A non-native speaker might know what the verb, "to get" means. And they may know what cold means. And they probably know what feet are. But if you put that phrase together, "to get cold feet," they have no way of knowing that it means to become nervous.
We have a lot of idioms in English. And a lot of them come from sports, things like, "right off the bat," meaning instantly or immediately, "out in left field," meaning something very strange or out of the ordinary, "throw in the towel," meaning to quit or to give up. Some idioms are a little more transparent.
Something like, "level the playing field" is a little easier to understand the connection. If we level the field, we make things even and fair for everyone involved. But some idioms are really difficult to understand, for example, "hit it off with someone." This to me, actually sounds rather violent.
But of course, it's a positive thing. If you hit it off with someone, you get along with them. You have a good relationship.
There are several other idioms in English that don't come from sports, things like, "down the road," meaning later, or "up in the air," to signify uncertain or unknown, "a rule of thumb," meaning a general rule, and also, "foot the bill," meaning to pay for something. Idioms are very common in American English, more so than you probably realize. So it's important if you're talking to someone from another culture to try to avoid idioms or be prepared to explain them or reword them if necessary.
SPEAKER 3: Use easier words.
SPEAKER 4: People who expect first that some kind of words are hard to understand for us is better.
STEPHANIE HANSON: One example of a type of word that can be difficult for non-native speakers is a multi-word verb. Now you can probably guess that a multi-word verb is a verb that has more than one word. But it acts as one unit, as one word all together.
We can take "to break" as an example of a regular single-word verb. And we probably understand what that means. Now a multi-word version of that word is "to break down," which we usually use to describe a machine or a process, something that stops working.
We have another version in "to break up," which we can use to mean crumble. We break up a candy bar. Or we break up a chunk of ice. To break up can also be applied to relationships, as in to break up a meeting or to break up with a significant other.
And for non-native speakers, these slight differences and difference in uses can cause some misunderstandings and problems. In an academic setting in particular, we can see a lot of examples of common multi-word verbs but consider a single-word substitute, for example, submit homework rather than hand in homework or turn in homework. We might distribute a paper rather than pass out or hand out the paper. We might ask students to listen rather than listen up or to solve a problem rather than figure out a problem.
In my experience, non-native speakers often learn the single-word version of a word and have more difficulties with the multi-word versions. So that's an important thing to understand. And recognize that these can be more prevalent than you are probably aware of.
SPEAKER 5: Use less slang and local jokes.
SPEAKER 2: It would be nice if people could realize they are using slang sometimes.
STEPHANIE HANSON: Slang can be really difficult for non-native speakers. And one of the reasons is because it's constantly changing. It's always new. Slang is meant to be something that distinguishes a subgroup from another group.
And so it evolves constantly. We see that a lot with generational differences. But it also comes across in cultural differences.
One strategy you can use is to think about how you talk to your grandparents versus how you talk to a roommate or a friend from high school. You probably use more slang with your friends and monitor or lessen the amount of slang that you use with a grandparent. You can use the same strategy when speaking with a non-native speaker.
Even common slang or something you might think of as relatively old or not really new or changing can be difficult for non-native speakers. A phrase like, "to go out," meaning to date someone can be difficult for non-native speakers. That's still slang to them.
And they're unfamiliar with that term sometimes. So understand that slang can be problematic. And be prepared to avoid it or rephrase it if necessary.
SPEAKER 4: I know it's boring, but repeat difficult words and difficult phrases.
SPEAKER 6: It is helpful if you rephrase or re-explain what you say.
STEPHANIE HANSON: Another thing that you can do when you're speaking to help with the vocabulary situation is be willing to reword, rephrase what you say, or use synonyms. Especially if you're using idioms, multi-word verbs, or slang, this is going to be helpful to the non-native speaker. Be prepared to explain what you mean or use a different word.
Another thing that you can do is perform comprehension checks. Check that the person you're talking to understands what you say. You can say things like, "does that make sense?" or "do you understand?" or "OK?". And be aware that you should check in with the other person to make sure they're understanding you.
We've now reviewed several speaking strategies you can use to help cross-cultural communication go more smoothly. Now, let's look at some listening tips to help you better understand when a non-native speaker of English is talking to you.
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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 3 of 6 in the Watch Your Language series.