Cultural competency: A communication challenge for all

When it comes to speaking English, everyone needs to make an effort.

WASHINGTON, June 3, 2012 — Thousands upon thousands of brilliant, motivated, hard working—and legal—immigrants live in the United States. Every year additional highly educated professionals arrive to study and work. Here they make their first attempts at practical use of the English they learned growing up. Now they must speak and write English at jobs and in schools, both of which are highly competitive.

Like the ancestors, or maybe even just the moms and dads of American-born citizens, these individuals have earned the right to be here and have followed the required regulations. Many of them have terrific English. Regardless of their accents, or whether they learned British- or American-style English, they write and speak well. They are excellent people to work with because they bring new knowledge and ideas to the table. They are also fun to socialize with in non-work environments because they bring new knowledge, ideas, and perspectives to the table.

"Love" expressed in many languages.

“Love” expressed in many languages.

The Accent Problem

It’s not always easy.

Writer Lily Qi, commenting in a recent issue of Asian Fortune Newspaper, states that for many foreign-born professionals, “Verbal communication is our last frontier in career advancement and personal integration with other Americans.” She goes on to speak about the difficulties experienced by adult professionals coming to the United States and the self-consciousness they feel when attempting to speak English with native speakers. She further observes that lack of practice can lead to serious lack of confidence.

She is right.

Other newcomers to the United States, perhaps with similar professional training, are completely unaware of how difficult it is for Americans—and other immigrants—to understand them. Standing in line at the returns counter at a Kohl’s or Target behind a heavily accented native speaker of Japanese trying to return an item to a heavily accented native speaker of Spanish store employee makes that problem clear as day, and can even be mildly amusing if you’re not in a hurry. Difficulties with dueling accents in a hospital emergency room, however, could be a recipe for tragedy.

Life after ESOL Class

Speaking requires more than simply having a good vocabulary. And being understood requires many more skills than simply being able to speak. For example, Roger Love, a speaking coach based in Los Angeles, emphasizes the importance of pitch, pace, tone, volume, and melody for any speakers of English.

However, suggesting that non-native adult English speakers acquire perfectly accented American English is unrealistic. In most cases, that’s physiologically impossible. Language changes constantly, and learning any language, even your native language, requires lifelong effort—not a huge, Ph.D.-producing effort, but at least some daily attention to detail.

Three important differentiators important in grasping how different languages are spoken are intonation, stress, and rhythm. Although many native English speakers don’t take advantage of it, English also has a wide range of intonation, or pitch. It is a stress-timed language, meaning that certain words in sentences get specific emphasis.

The rhythms of English can vary greatly compared with other languages, because the underlying beat, or pattern of English, does not produce steady sounds of equal length. Speakers of English confront varying degrees of difficulty, often based upon the non-English intonations, stresses, and rhythms they internalized from babyhood as they learned their first language.

Gaju Bhat, founder of the Adaptive Pronunciation Institute in Los Angeles, says he was “blissfully unaware” of his “heavy foreign accent” until he enrolled in a graduate program at Stanford University at the age of 22. While in school, Bhat contributed to research at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. After graduating, he created a website,, which offers a program focusing on the intonations, stresses, and rhythms of English for non-Native speakers who want to improve their American English accents.

How Native Speakers of American English Can Help

Americans are some of the most friendly and outgoing people in the world (some say too much so). Because of their eagerness to like and be liked, native English speakers sometimes let statements go that they don’t understand, even when talking with other native English speakers. (And like people the world over, they’re not fond of admitting they missed something.) Usually things get sorted out later, but not always, especially if the problem is heavily accented English.

Due to underlying rhythms in their native languages, sometimes non-native English speakers speak English very rapidly—too rapidly for native English speakers to grasp. However, native English speakers should not allow non-native English speakers to continue a conversation without actually understanding what the non-native speaker is actually saying. Not stopping to clarify information is not only a disservice to the speaker, but also to anyone this person attempts to speak with in the future.

The author’s all-purpose business card.

There are many polite ways to ask a person to repeat a statement. Here are a few: Please say that again. Would you repeat that? Could you say that again a little more slowly please.

If you still don’t understand, asking the same question again or repeating it in a louder voice won’t make things any clearer between the two of you. Try to repeat or reword the phrase you don’t understand in the way you normally speak. If that doesn’t help, the native speaker might say, “Please use different words.”

If at all possible, communication between two or more individuals should bring benefit to both of them. The important part is the effort. Celebrate every success, no matter how small/ pequeño/ be/petit/Klein …

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” - Peter Drucker


Frances Ponick’s bookOnly Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available at She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter,Facebook, and/or LinkedIn 

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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from


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