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IC Communication Competency 3: Language Adjustment

Being able to adjust one’s language is a complex yet essential skill, especially for native speakers of the chosen working language. Non-native speakers have to communicate in a language over which they have varying degrees of command, and this may put them at a disadvantage. So, in order to help non-native speakers follow a conversation more easily and to enable them to participate in a meaningful way, it is necessary for native speakers to adapt their language to the level of proficiency of their interlocutor(s). Adjustment involves multiple aspects. Some of the most crucial ones include:
arrow_up.gif adjusting the speed of speech (i.e. speaking slowly enough for non-native speakers to be able to follow, but not so slowly that they are insulted!);
 
arrow_up.gif avoiding complex sentence structure (i.e. keeping it simple and keeping one thought per sentence, rather than packing multiple thoughts into one long and complex sentence);
 
arrow_up.gif avoiding complex structures, such as passive or negative inversion, which can cause considerable confusion (i.e. using active voice, such as ‘Are you going to organise the meeting?’, instead of passive voice ‘Is the meeting going to be organised by you’ and avoiding negative inversions, such as ‘So you are not coming to the meeting tomorrow then?’ in favour of a more simple structure, such as ‘Are you coming to the meeting tomorrow?);
 
arrow_up.gif pausing regularly to ensure that non-native speakers can follow the interaction and have the opportunity to ask questions, should they be unsure of their comprehension;
 
arrow_up.gif using simple terminology (i.e. use words such as ‘use’, which are more likely to be familiar to a non-native speaker rather than more complex words such as ‘employ’, which are likely to be acquired at a later proficiency stage);
 
arrow_up.gif avoiding idiomatic expressions, which are rarely shared and are among the most difficult aspects to comprehend in a foreign language (i.e. avoid phrases such as ‘do we have to reinvent the wheel’ and instead describe what you mean);
 
arrow_up.gif avoiding regional dialects and accents, whenever possible (i.e. try to use a standard form of the language, rather than local jargon and heavy accents).
It is important to remember, however, that the level of adjustment needs to be dynamic and to suit the level of proficiency of the other partners. Over-adjustment can be as insulting as under-adjustment.
 
Case Study Example: Language Adjustment at the start of a meeting
Adjusting one’s use of language to the proficiency level of the recipient(s) is vital for effective communication; however, it is sometimes easier said than done. Consider the following interaction that took place at one of our meetings:
 
Chair:
[…] I’m going to ask everybody to speak very clearly and uh without heavy accents if possible

Everyone:

Laughter [as the Chair speaks with a Scottish accent]

Chair:

and we may take some pauses just to make sure everybody uhm uh is keeping up with the conversation cause we can sometimes each of us speak very quickly when we get excited. Uh this afternoon is a chance for us really to explore the research issues ## tell each other what we’re doing ## tell each other what we hope to achieve what we’re aspiring to ### and it would be wonderful if we could perhaps focus on the use of technology in learning ## if that was of interest to you ##### so what I I’d like to do is I think it would be very helpful for one of our colleagues to volunteer to <as we say in Scotland: start the ball rolling cause we really love football>. Uh I think I think it would be fair to ask one of our colleagues to start the ball rolling and (name of British colleague) if you would like to kick off for us.  
This excerpt demonstrates a number of adjustment practices. The Chair clearly shows a high level of awareness of this competency, by asking participants to speak clearly, to avoid accents, to avoid fast speech and to pause regularly in order to ensure that all participants have the chance to follow the conversation. The Chair then goes on to put her insights into practice, speaking slowly and clearly, by pausing regularly (signalled by #) and trying to avoid the use of a heavy Scottish accent. However, only seconds later she speeds up (signalled by < >), falls into a more pronounced Scottish accent, uses an idiomatic expression (‘to start the ball rolling’) which leaves all but one of the Chinese participants with blank faces, and then goes on to repeat the idiom and to use complex vocabulary (‘kick off’), which is unlikely to be understood and could easily have been replaced by a more simple word, such as ‘start’ or ‘begin’.
 

cift_arrow.gif Tip: In your next meeting with non-native speaking partners or colleagues, monitor your own use of English or that of your colleagues. How similar or different is it to the type of English used by your non-native speaking partners/colleagues?