Awareness Workshop – Cultural References

Let’s say you are in charge of designing a workshop for Native English speakers – with the goal of making them more aware of the English they use. Your objective is to make these Native speakers easier to understand when speaking internationally. What would you include in the workshop?

We have already covered two well known problem areas with our discussions of speed and idioms. Today I’d like to take a look at something that is often overlooked by Native Speakers and which often creates big challenges when communicating internationally. It is something I believe is key in a Raising Language Awareness Workshop:

Using Cultural References

What do I mean by using cultural references? Here are a few examples from a meeting I took part in a few weeks ago, with a mixed audience of nationalities and language backgrounds. The participants of this meeting knew each other, and though business matters were being discussed the tone was rather informal:

” You should see what the inside of the factory looks like… it’s like the Death Star in there!”

“Can we take a rain-check on that?”

“That question came out of left field…”

“Product X is one of our top shelf products… “

A quick definition of a cultural reference could be:  a phrase, name, or word that refers to a concept in the local environment that most speakers from that culture will understand. It’s inevitable that speakers from the same country will have similar background information and references, related to things such as:

  • Local Geography
  • Local TV & Films
  • Local Shops
  • Local Politicians & Politics
  • Popular Music
  • Popular Sports & Hobbies
  • Common Holidays
  • Common Jokes
  • Common Proverbs
  • Common Idioms
  • Current Events in the Local News

This is a very short list of the type of things that English speakers will reference during speech… our conversations are filled with them. It’s a natural part of speech which helps us communicate our message both quicker and more clearly. It also plays an important secondary role – it connects us with our fellow speakers. When we both understand the cultural reference we may both feel drawn closer together. In a way, it signals that “we come from the same culture”, the “same area”, or that we have similar “hobbies or beliefs”. Of course, the opposite can happen when we are using unfamiliar cultural references – we can feel unconnected or distant to our speaking partner.

In my own experience working abroad, this is one of the main obstacles to clear international communication.

It’s important to note that this is the major challenge between Native English speakers as well! A local from Texas and a local from the north of Scotland may both speak English fluently, but should they sit down and speak together the inevitbale cultural references that are thrown into the conversation will create challenges to communication. They may both smile and ask for clarification, or they may both walk away from the table wondering just what the other person wanted to say.

In the business world this can lead to miscommunication, missed messages, and a loss of sales and productivity.

All speakers, including Native English speakers, should be aware of their audience and adapt their use of cultural references accordingly.

If you are running a Raising Language Awareness Workshop, you need to make the participants aware of this challenge. Many language learners are going to have trouble understanding cultural references, and a businessperson moderating an international meeting needs to be able to adapt when necessary.

Therefore, the following should be covered in the workshop:

  • Raising Awareness of what cultural references are and the challenges they present to understanding.
  • What are some typical cultural references from the participants home environments, groups, or regions?
  • Helping the Native Speakers work on their accommodation strategies.
  • Improving the skill of explaining around cultural references when necessary. This includes getting into the habit of checking with the audience when a cultural reference has accidentally been used in order to facilitate clearer communication & team building.

Language learners need to do their best to learn as much about the target culture as possible in order to prepare for these cultural references. It is an important step in the journey to becoming fluent… a journey that is never ending in relation to cultural references. 

However Native Speakers need to be aware of their use and adjust when necessary… ensuring that the message they are trying to communicate does in fact get communicated. 

I plan to post many examples of cultural references in the future on this blog. Do you have any experiences where you misunderstood the conversation thanks to an unknown local reference?

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3 Responses to Awareness Workshop – Cultural References

  1. Ray Carey says:

    Hi Matt, I suppose there’s a lot of overlap between idiomatic and culture-specific language, but I think you’re right to raise awareness of both areas independently. I think a general strategy that supports this awareness is the value of rephrasing — it gives other speakers two “packages” containing equivalent information and it slows the development of the message without s-l-o-w-i-n-g d-o-w-n in a way that can be condescending. If you’re already using rephrasing consciously, then when the “rain-check” slips out you’re ready to offer an alternative.

    It’s great to hear about your workshop, it’s an idea that also occurred to me from my research in academic English as a lingua franca (ELF). Lots of ELF findings are focused on the cooperativeness of (non-native) ELF users, their skillful accommodation of each other, and how interactive features (like rephrasing) are used to negotiate meaning. There’s been a lot of talk about how ELF research might influence language teaching, but it seems to me that ELF speakers are already being observed using English effectively without any outside “intervention” — it’s the native speakers in ELF settings who have the most to learn.

    I’d think that business would be more receptive to these ideas, since the emphasis on efficiency and profitability should take precedence over ideological views about “color”. Money is a motivator we academics don’t have to contend with. :)

  2. Thanks for the comments Ray:
    I agree that there is a lot of overlap between idiomatic phrases and culture-specific language… Often the cultural references become idioms and truly enter the language long-term – continuing on decades after the cultural reference has long been forgotten. However, I like to approach the two as separate issues as it’s a good reminder for Native Speakers to be aware of “dropping” too many of them in the wrong situation.

    I’m glad you mentioned rephrasing – it’s one of the key things that we can do actively to ensure clearer communication. A good mix of rephrasing and clarifying can work wonders no matter what the language level of the speakers are. :-)

    It’s interesting that your ELF research has shown you that non-native speakers are accommodating each other effectively: it’s something that one definitely “learns by doing”. Multi-lingual speakers definitely have an advantage over mono-lingual speakers (as most Native English speakers are) in that they have experienced learning a new language, and thus naturally know what is “clearer” or “simpler to understand”.

    Have companies realized the cost-saving potential in working with the Native Speakers yet? Most have not. However, I think with the globalized economy, the recognition of ELF, and the continued increase of English the world over (amongst other reasons) that companies will soon take notice of the money being lost due to miscommunication.

  3. Pingback: Can English native speakers adapt to a lingua franca world? | ELFA project

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