We’d Sound Less Stupid If We Said It This Way


When I was teaching grad school I was blessed with an incredibly diverse classroom. Students from Thailand, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and dozens of other countries roamed the hallways of our department.

For years I had been battling with ways to communicate to this audience. We teach, speak and write in English, but for some of my students, English is their second (or third or fourth) language. The lexicon of an industry is a unique language as well. They are trying to master English and simultaneously develop a vocabulary of these other words. No small feat.

I asked one Chinese woman how she hears my questions. “I hear English, translate to Mandarin to see if I got the context right, then respond in English.” Wow. That’s incredible. It gave me much more empathy in how I explained things. No idioms. No slang. Clean English. That’s hard for me too.

What a joy my class must have been. A dozen writing and analysis assignments, plus a multi-thousand word final paper. For an international student, this was and is a unique challenge.

I couldn’t give them a bunch of low-stakes assignments and pass them through the program. We had to figure it out.

One of our in-class activities was to identify companies in various stages of their lifecycle (at the time):

Youth: Coinbase, Robinhood

Maturity: Facebook, ESPN

Decline: Nokia, Blackberry

The students paired up. One of the teams was a Chinese woman and an American man. I watched them attempt to collaborate, trying to determine which companies fit into these categories. It seemed to be, standing by listening to them, they were talking but not communicating.

I approached them and said, “Tell him what you use in China. Tell HIM what’s big at home. Tell HER what’s happening in the Bay Area right now.”

All of a sudden, the two had a lot to say…in English.

ESL students spend entire semesters feeling somewhat dumb, I fear. Every day they are being corrected. We ask them to say something and:

1) They might not know the exact words they want to say

2) They have all eyes on them in class

3) I’m standing there, waiting for them to process the question, translate it, then utter a cogent response.

They rarely got to display their intelligence! They hardly ever get to sound smart.

I came up with a better challenge. I told them to speak their native language with a fellow student, if they can.

If nobody understands what a word exactly means (in the context of our media class), we cannot possibly analyze it.

I used the word (no surprise) “reinvention” in a lecture yesterday, talking about how Microsoft was reimagining almost everything it does, moving away from software to devices and services.

I asked the room what it means to invent something. Silence.

I told them to find a word in Mandarin or Arabic that might be similar, and say the word out loud to each other, not in English but in their native language.

A student raised her hand.

“It means to create something new. So reinvention means…to create again.”

Now we knew what that word did for our discussion. All of a sudden, students were talking! They knew exactly what Microsoft was up to. Now we were learning, and we were learning it in English, among ESL and native speakers.

Go to your local taqueria tomorrow and ask for eggs served upon lightly fried tortillas and topped with a chili sauce. We know the word huevos rancheros, but I wonder if we can string together all the other words needed to greet our server and politely request this delicious breakfast – in Spanish.

The ESL students, when asked to recite concepts and methods in their native languages, breeze through it. When they try to explain the same thing in English, it might seem they don’t know anything about the subject.

They are much smarter than they might sound to an ear deaf to differences in cultures.

Consider this word exercise. You know how to do things. You are accomplished at performing certain tasks. In what environment can you speak your “language” and impress people?

If we can find the right words, we can do almost anything.

You talk. John listens. Contact him here.

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