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A Snapshot of Who They Are*

Mia is from the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and has been in Canada since 2003. Mia is a restaurant owner. For Mia, operating a restaurant business and working at a hotel for banquets take up much of her time.  Both Mia and her husband work at the restaurant. The work is possible with the support of her parents, who look after the children.

Ashley arrived in 2004 from Taiwan. At the time of the interview, Ashley worked part-­time for a non-­profit organization. She is married with two children. When Ashley is not at work, she tries to engage the children in activities, and thus she has plenty of opportunities to interact with other parents in English. Ashley’s husband works for the BC government.

Iman is from Saudi Arabia and landed in Canada in 2005. In 2014, Iman was a full-­time graduate student. She is married with three children. Iman’s husband, who is a medical professional, returned to Saudi Arabia after three years of training in Canada. Iman stayed to pursue her graduate studies after receiving a Saudi government scholarship. In Iman’s life, her three children are her priority, as her stories accentuated.

Both Ashley and Iman also have the support of their in-­laws or parents who reside with them. A close family bond is a common thread in these three women’s lives.


*Women’s names are pseudonyms

Their English-­language Experience

All three women started earning English at school by age 10 or 11, as their schools required. Both Ashley and Iman love languages. Iman confessed that she has been fascinated by languages since age 11, while Ashley shared a strong parental influence in early language learning and considered learning English as “always fun and exciting.” After moving to Canada, all took various English courses offered for immigrants and/or at English language centres or community colleges in cities like Toronto, Saskatoon, and Victoria. All three said that free courses for immigrants and activities like discussions at conversation cafés were not challenging enough, but courses that prepared them for academic or employment-­related tasks, such as making presentations, were useful. For Ashley and Iman especially, the process of learning English through attendance at formal courses offered by colleges and universities had clear instrumental purposes for specific reasons, such as the need to prepare for academic pursuits, to adjust to different thinking and rhetorical styles, to become familiar with technical terms, and so on.

Their English-­language Use at Work and Home

All three women expressed a similar distinction between language use at work vs. language use at home. At the time of the interview, Ashley’s work required her to interact with people from different language and cultural backgrounds, and she mostly used English at work. At home, she prefers to use her mother tongue, because she “[wants] to reinforce the rule [of speaking Mandarin] just to keep the language with [her] children,” as she put it. Similarly, Iman mostly uses English except at home with her children, because she also wishes “to maintain their mother tongue.” So does Mia, who prefers to use Mandarin at home, but whose work requires her to speak English. In these mothers’ eyes, the fact that all children have daily interactions with their grandparents, who speak almost exclusively in their mother tongue, helps children learn their heritage languages.

Their Language-­learning Goals

We asked each woman to self-­assess her ability to communicate in English. The assessments ranged from “not bad” (Mia) to “not bad…not perfect” (Iman) and to “I am really confident” (Ashley). When the three were asked about their goals in learning English, Mia expressed a desire to achieve mutual understanding in work-­related communication, specifically in hospitality management. For Iman, what matters is being able to listen and speak in specific settings that require different registers, or levels of formality and usage. Iman hopes to broaden her perspective and learn new things through different languages. Ashley aspires to improve work-­related communication, but her goals have changed from an aim to communicate in a teaching capacity, with a “Canadian-­like accent,” to achieve the fluency required for professional purposes. Within the professional sphere, Ashley still considers attaining a native-­like accent a desirable goal, but she also expressed that, outside of work, she no longer feels strongly or cares so much about having a “non-Canadian-like” accent.

Their Language-­learning Strategies

What strategies have all three women used to reach their advanced level of ability in English? Ashley and Mia have been able to work professionally, while Iman has achieved the high level of English communication skills needed to pursue a graduate degree. We asked them to share the strategies they have used. Strategies mentioned by all three included watching TV and movies and taking formal courses. They also discussed socializing with other parents through children’s activities (Ashley), reading and listening to music (Iman), using the language without fear of making mistakes or of asking — as Mia puts it: “Fear not what you can’t say, fear what you don’t ask,” and developing a higher tolerance of ambiguity by focusing on the gist of messages rather than on unfamiliar words (Ashley).

Their challenges and our suggestions

Challenge: “No matter how hard I try, I still get the accent.” (Ashley)

Suggestions: The idea of “accentedness” relates to how different your speech seems from the variety of English commonly spoken in the community. Many second-­language learners aspire to reach the goal of a near-­native accent, but researchers have questioned the realistic possibility of attaining that goal. The complex motivational factors underlying the goal can be personal (for example, the desire to integrate into the target language community) and/or professional (for example, to open up more employment opportunities, as in Ashley’s case).

While achieving a native-­like accent seems to be a straightforward, commonsensical goal, it is perhaps useful to think about whether the goal is more about “comprehensibility” (that is, your listeners’ perceptions of how easy or difficult it is to comprehend your message) or about “intelligibility” (that is, an objective measure of the extent to which your listeners understand what you say). A high level of comprehensibility or intelligibility certainly is not the same thing as low accentedness; in other words, a person with an accent can still potentially be clearly understood. Therefore, perhaps the goal needs to be reevaluated. This suggestion to reevaluate the goal is not meant to diminish the importance of individuals’ language-­learning aspirations or the possible personal frustration, sense of lost educational and professional opportunities, potential negative social evaluation, and feeling of isolation from the target community that non-­English-­as-­a-­first-­language immigrants might experience because they perceive that they lack a native-­like accent. Still, setting a clear and realistic goal is important to the process of thinking about how the goal can be tackled.

A high level of comprehensibility or intelligibility certainly is not the same thing as low accentedness; in other words, a person with an accent can still potentially be clearly understood.

There are plenty of accessible tools that may be used to aid pronunciation improvement. It’s also important to keep in mind, however, that “comprehensibility,” for example, has to do with your listeners’ perceptions, and, as such, it is subjective, depending on the person, with all his/her personal filters shaped by previous experiences with whom you are interacting in a particular context and situation.

Research by linguist Murray Munro has shown that it’s much more difficult to understand second-­language speakers in noisy conditions. Unlike a classroom situation, where the speaking and listening conditions are typically arranged, daily communication situations can be less than ideal, with the level of noise as an example. Try to experience a wider range of speaking and listening conditions, and see how your speech is perceived, by tuning into your listeners’ verbal (what they say in response to your talk) and nonverbal (their body language and facial expressions) feedback. Then experiment with different ways of getting your message across when your message is not received as intended. Extend permission for assistance and interruptions. By saying, for example, “If my pronunciation is off or if I am not being clear in my explanation, please let me know,” you let your listeners know that you are open to their help and corrections. As Iman told us, she enjoys receiving corrections from her listeners, because she sees such interactions as learning opportunities. Being explicit about extending permission helps you create those opportunities. For Ashley, even though she still feels that achieving a native-­like accent is important in the professional sphere, her beliefs have changed, as she revealed when she said that “[my accent] shows where I come from. That’s my heritage.”

Research by linguist Murray Munro has shown that it’s much more difficult to understand second-­language speakers in noisy conditions.

Challenge: The next theme is related to oral communication in professional settings, including, for example, the ability to anticipate questions and to elaborate on responses in interviews, the ability to communicate with clarity and precision during professional encounters, and the ability to decline a request and express disagreement in workplace communication.

Suggestions: Each of these challenges could be the topic for a column on its own, but let’s consider some field-­tested strategies that have worked in the first author’s teaching of MBA and international students. You might like to try some of the strategies the next time you encounter a situation that calls for any one of those skills.

In interview situations, anticipating questions is a major part of the preparation process. There is no shortage of websites that provide lists of the most commonly asked interview questions. Depending on the type of position you are seeking, go through the list to identify questions that you or someone who is familiar with the type of position deem relevant. Practice exactly how you would respond to the questions, in terms of both strategies and language. In the process of trying to answer all the identified questions, you will gain knowledge and confidence in responding to both anticipated and unanticipated questions. The process of preparing answers will also help you refine your responses to achieve greater clarity and precision. Iman and Mia both mentioned that they find it difficult to speak with service people and customers. The same principle applies to anticipating the dialogue and the questions that may come up in these situations. In anticipating encounters, a certain amount of preparation will help you achieve your desired communication goals in the process of developing fluency, automaticity, and confidence in engaging in interpersonal communication.

When thinking about how to elaborate your responses, consider a few simple strategies. If you find yourself running out of things to say, you can, for example, relate to your personal experience, pick up on something you didn’t get a chance to (fully) elaborate, build on points that you and/or your interlocutor had mentioned previously, or ask questions to help you generate ideas. These strategies can be easily applied beyond job interviews to any form of interpersonal communication.

On another important matter, having difficulty saying “no” to requests is not unique to immigrant women. Adam Grant, Wharton Professor and author of Give and Take, offers some sensible advice in his recent article “8 ways to say no without ruining your reputation,” which is worth a read. As we all continue to practice our ability to say “no,” it’s helpful to keep in mind Grant’s words: “Saying no frees you up to say yes when it matters most.” In a similar vein, expressing disagreement can put one outside of one’s comfort zone and potentially disrupt one’s efforts to maintain a harmonious balance in social relationships. It is helpful to be aware of factors such as power distance (that is, how cultures distribute status, rank, and power among members) and the ways one’s preferences may affect people’s interaction and communication with each other. For example, speakers from cultures that tend to value large power differences may feel uncomfortable or hesitant about disagreeing with someone openly.

In situations that do not require an immediate response, postpone your reply to give yourself some time to prepare and to feel prepared. Disagree with the points, not the person; focus on the reasons, not the position. In the process of expressing disagreement, commit to being a good listener. As Steven Covey once said: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is applicable to all communication challenges mentioned and shared in this section.

It is helpful to be aware of factors such as power distance (that is, how cultures distribute status, rank, and power among members) and the ways one’s preferences may affect people’s interaction and communication with each other. For example, speakers from cultures that tend to value large power differences may feel uncomfortable or hesitant about disagreeing with someone openly.

Challenge: “Maybe for me the problem that I don’t have, like, any [English-speaking] friends…, activities…social life, where I [can] use English [in] different settings” (Iman)

Suggestions: The lack of time that all three working immigrant women experience, the process of broadening one’s social network, as shared by Iman and Mia, and not being aware of available resources and support, as professed by all three women, can be challenging for all people, immigrant or not. The trepidation and obstacles may be even greater for immigrants because of language and cultural barriers. Look into local settlement and community centres near you for professional development opportunities, as well as regular and seasonal cultural events and social activities that you can join and enjoy. Social activities offer added benefits of increasing exposure in real time to colloquial and idiomatic expressions. Mastering the appropriate use of these expressions often takes time, exposure, and practice. These experiences may offer much more than watching TV shows and films in English.

At the end of their interviews, each of the three women shared with us a “gem” that captures their experience in the process of learning a new language and culture. Ashley reminded us about the importance of “be[ing] open…not only to the language, to any new things.” Iman’s aspiration keeps her going — “Once you know a language, a new language, it’s a window, an opening for a new culture… a window that opens the horizon for me, for view, for anybody to so many different new things.” Finally, Mia reminded us that “we not only need to learn about them [Canadians —the language and the culture], we should show them our culture, help them understand our own culture.”

Originally published in print in Here Magazine in July 2014. At the time of publication, Li-­Shih Huang was an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and the Learning and Teaching Scholar-­in-­Residence at the University of Victoria, and Xiaoqian Guo was a third-year doctoral student specializing in applied linguistics. Twitter: @AppLingProf and @XiaoqianGuo