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THIS ARTICLE was inspired by an e-mail that the International Society for General Semantics received from a business-woman in England who wanted recommendations for books on "... clear and concise communication in business, especially for global or multinationals working with offices in non-native-English-speaking countries." I didn't know of any books on this topic, but I began thinking about her request. I came up with several guidelines, which I e-mailed to her. Since then, I have added to my collection of tips.

For three decades, I have found that rational thinking and clear communication make life easier. I applied some of my communication skills by helping my friends from China and Japan improve their fluency in English as a Second Language (ESL). I can appreciate the difficulties and frustrations experienced by ESL students because I struggled as a JSL student in an Intermediate Japanese Reading class at San Francisco State University in the late 1970s. In the 1990s, for seven years, I was married to a lady from China who spoke no English when I met her. I learned a lot from her about ESL.

I offer the following true stories as appetizers before we get into the main course.

Yukiko, a friend from Japan, wondered why Australians are happy about mothers dying. She said they always smile when they say "mothers die." Eventually, she figured out that the Australians were talking about celebrating "Mother's Day."

Takako, my Japanese girlfriend at the time, joined me for dinner with a few friends and relatives at a friend's home. After the meal we had cookies and ice cream for dessert, and I witnessed this exchange: The hostess asked her, "Don't you want another cookie?" Takako answered, "Yes." The hostess picked up the plate of cookies and tried to pass it to her, but Takako politely refused it, saying "No thank you, I am full." The hostess, now puzzled, but trying to maintain a smile, slowly withdrew the plate. At this point, I explained to the hostess that Takako took her question literally, and gave a logical answer: Yes, I do not want another cookie. The moral of this story: Do not ask a question that contains a negation word (such as don't, can't, won't, isn't, wasn't, hasn't, not, or no). Instead, ask questions in a positive form, such as "Do you want another cookie?"

On another occasion, I heard Takako say "juyo de nai." As a student of Japanese, I wanted to expand my vocabulary, so I asked her what it meant, and she said, "It's not important." Persisting, I said, "OK, it's not important; just tell me what it means." She held her ground and repeated, "It's not important." She disappointed me because she wouldn't cooperate. We kept on arguing -- she was so stubborn! Finally, she managed to get it through my head that "not important" was the meaning of "juyo de nai!" Oops. Our misunderstanding reminds me of the Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" comedy routine.

A few Australian friends visited the San Francisco Bay Area. One of the ladies was about my age and quite attractive. I had not met her before. During dinner at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, she looked me right in the eye and, with some conviction (as if she were desperate), she said "I'm looking for sex." Well, why was she telling me? I really didn't know what to say. It was a flattering remark, the kind I don't get very often (actually, never). During the pregnant pause that followed, my imagination raced toward an exciting future scenario -- Oh, baby! -- but before I could get there, she spoke again. "I want to shop at the Sex Fifth Avenue department store." Her comment slamdunked me back to reality. All I could say was "Oh, Saks Fifth Avenue," as I tried to recover.

Now for the main course, two lists of suggestions for improving communication with speakers of ESL:

Spoken English

* Enunciate carefully and speak slowly. ESL people may find it difficult to catch machine-gun English. Give listeners a bit more time to absorb and think about what you said. Remember that they may need extra time between words to mentally translate your statements.

* Phone conversations can be challenging for ESL people, so speak clearly and not too fast in these situations also. The listener can't see the lip movements, facial expressions, and gestures of the speaker, which might provide helpful cues. Different words sometimes have the same sound (write and right, know and no, principal and principle, etc.). Other words have similar sounds (affect and effect, than and then, etc.), and some consonants can sound alike over the phone (b and d, c and z, p and t, s and f, m and n, etc.).

* Speak in the active voice. This will make your statements shorter and simpler than when you speak in the passive voice. For example, instead of "There are ten people who are going to be attending the party" (passive voice), say "Ten people will attend the party" (active voice). That's six fewer words for the listener, and the meaning of the sentence has not changed significantly. A very useful training tool in general semantics is E-Prime (English without the verb to be, such as is, was, are, were, am, be, been). By practicing E-Prime, you learn to use the active voice, which can make your spoken English clearer. (1)

* When speaking, do not use contractions. For example, the contraction, "can't" might be heard as "can." I recommend that both ESL speakers and native English speakers avoid contractions.

* Avoid idioms such as "I have a bone to pick with you" or "Get on the ball." (2) Also avoid trendy expressions, such as "What's up with that?" (3) It surprises me how often I use expressions that don't say what they really mean. For years I have disciplined myself to be mindful about what I say and who I say it to, but sometimes I still catch myself using words and expressions that don't work with ESL listeners.

Written English

* Write shorter sentences. For example, consider this sentence: "Due to the increase in the salary of the employees of the company, the workers who were considering leaving made a joint decision to stay." It can be shortened to "Because their salaries were increased, the workers who thought of leaving decided to stay."

* Prefer simpler forms of words (such as "recommend" vs. "recommending" or "recommendation"; "notify" vs. "notifying" or "notification").

* Eliminate "fat" words (which give practically no information), and use "muscle" words that "work" for you by providing specifics (such as how many). For example, compare "A certain number of people signed up for the class" (fat words: "a certain number") vs. "Forty-three people signed up for the class" (muscle word: "forty-three").

* When writing, avoid the expressions in [brackets]; instead use the words in bold:

* [via] by

* [remit] pay

* [utilize] use

* [render] give

* [initiate] start

* [endeavor] try

* [have to] must

* [prior to] before

* [erroneous] wrong

* [commence] begin

* [in the event that] if

* [subsequent to] after

* [in the amount of] for

* [for the purpose of] to

* [remittance] payment

* [we are going to] we will

* [due to the fact] because

* [with regard to] regarding

* [give assistance to] assist

* [make application to] apply

* [have a preference for] prefer

* [achieve improvements] improve

* [with the exception of] except for

* [take into consideration] consider

* If possible, minimize jargon (abbreviations, acronyms, and technical terminology), especially if your readers will be the general public. Corporate people often communicate this way: "Two months ago, this dot-coin should have been DOA, but a new COO plus a new manager of the S&M Department saved the company." Although this can be a time-saver, some readers may not know all the codes. When abbreviations (such IBM, International Business Machines) or acronyms (such as UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) appear in a corporate document, define each one when it first appears. For example, "She will attend the national Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) conference. More than 100 people are expected to attend this annual PBS event." If a corporate document must contain technical terms, these could be defined in a glossary at the end of the document.

* Write for your readers, not for yourself. Consider what they need to know and how you should present it to them. As you write and edit your document, ask yourself, "What vocabulary level should I use?" "Could any of this be misunderstood?" "Do I have any ambiguous sentences?" "Have I left out something that is obvious to me, but would not be obvious to the reader?" "Should I include flowcharts, graphs, tables, diagrams, or illustrations to help get my message across?" "Does my message flow in a logical sequence, sentence to sentence, and paragraph to paragraph?" Remember the words of Robert Louis Stevenson: "Hard writing makes easy reading."

(*.) Gregory Sawin edited and co-authored Thinking & Living Skills. General Semantics for Critical Thinking (an illustrated anthology for students and teachers in high school and college). His introduction to general semantics for potential readers of his book appears at the web site. He serves as VP/Publications of ISGS, and works as a freelance medical/technical editor for biotechnology companies and universities in the San Francisco Bay Area.


(1.) Bourland, Jr., D. David, and Johnston, Paul D., eds. To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology. Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics, 3rd printing 1993.

(2.) Swick, Edward. American Idioms and Some Phrases Just for Fun. Barron's Educational Series, 1999.

(3.) Gozzi, Jr., Raymond. New Words and a Changing American Culture. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. This book probably will expand your awareness of the many slang terms and trendy words that could mystify ESL people. Dr. Gozzi writes the "Metaphors in Action" feature in ETC.

The books listed below also relate to the topic of this article:

Brill, Laura. Business Writing Quick & Easy. New York: American Management Association, 1981.

Burke, David. Biz Talk-2: More American Business Slang and Jargon. Optima Books, 1998.

Burke, David; Chancer, Mark; and Graul, Robert. Biz Talk-1: American Business Slang and Jargon. Optima Books, 1993.

Geffner, Andrea B. Barron's ESL Guide to American Business English. Barron's Educational Series, 1998.

Harvey, Carol P. and Allard, M. June. Understanding Diversiy: Readings, Cases, and Exercises. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995.

Kuga, Lillian A. Communicating in a Diverse Workplace: A Practical Guide to Successful Workplace Communication Techniques. Chang Associates, 1996.

Simons, George; Crisp, Michael; and Mapson, Ralph. Working Together: Succeeding in a Multicultural Organization. Crisp Publications, 1994.

For more information, search by the keyword "ESL" in,, or the Web in general.
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Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Previous Article:E-PRIME, [Sigma]EOS, AND THE GENERAL SEMANTICS PARADIGM: Revolution, Devolution, or Evolution?

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