4 Building on your Communication Skills

Once you start feeling more comfortable speaking to adults learning English, you are ready to learn more about different aspects in language learning that will help you and those to avoid. These aspects will assist you in having more casual conversations with the adults and prepare them for communicating with the general population:

  1. Relax
    Our brains work better when we are not too stressed, so do your best to create a relaxed atmosphere when dealing with adults learning English (or anyone else for that matter!). They’ll be able to do their best, and it will be easier for you to understand what they’re telling you if you’re relaxed as well. Check out different options with friends or the Internet to help you relax if you have not already found what works for you.
  2. Speak more slowly and carefully
    As a general rule, speak a bit more slowly than normal, break sentences into small chunks, and articulate a little more carefully. When you want to say:‘I want to go to Kanata this weekend because there’s a store I really like and they have a sale on.’Here’s what we may sound like to an adult learning English:Iwannagot’kanatathisweekendcuzthere’sastoreireallylike’n’theyhaveasaleonAll the words run into each other, making it harder to analyze the structure of the sentence. Chunking and articulating more carefully helps:

    I wanna go     to kanata     this weekend     cuz       there’s a store     I really like     an’ they have a sale on

    Please note that you don’t want to speak each word separately, like a talking dictionary. It would be completely unnatural and not helpful (nobody says: ‘I wanT To Go’ in normal, everyday speech!).

  3. Explain things in a simple way

    This means avoiding long words and complicated sentences. It does not mean talking the same way as you would to a child raised in Canada. Adults learning English have a more developed intellect than children and would feel that you are talking down to them. As well, Canadian children know Canadian culture from the inside; adult learners don’t, so cultural or colloquial references may not be understood (such as ‘Newfie’, hockey, Thanksgiving, tummy, yucky, ouch, PJs, and many phrasal verbs (see section below).

  4. Adjust your speaking to their understandingBy listening to the response of the learners in normal conversation, you will become skilled at attuning what you say to their level. You don’t want to overwhelm beginners by speaking too fast and using difficult words, but on the other hand, you don’t want to insult advanced learners by oversimplifying what you say. It’s tricky, but experience will improve your ability to find the right level and rhythm quickly.

    Key Takeaways

    Think of adults learning English as accomplished people who are separated from you by a barrier, such as a brick wall. The brick wall is preventing the two of you from understanding each other. As you keep adjusting your speech to accommodate the other person’s comprehension, gradually the brick wall will get smaller, and the communication will flow.
  5. Ways to avoid confusing terms

    English uses many so-called “phrasal verbs” (also called “two-part verbs” because they come in two pieces, such as put up, and put out, which are both different from just put). These are difficult and confusing for adult learners. In a lot of your work in English language classrooms, you will be using short questions that you try out with each other and the teacher. The checking will help you avoid using phrasal verbs in assessment questions, written material, or classroom presentations.

    However, adult learners need to learn about phrasal verbs because native English speakers use them all the time. Phrasal verbs feel easier to use for us than more formal equivalents. Raise your hand or put it up? Extinguish your cigarette or put it out? Tolerate your roommate’s music, or put up with it? To an adult learning English, on the other hand, the more formal verb is often clearer.

    Look at these examples:

    • How often do you eat out? (eat outside in the park? eat until everything is out of your plate?)
    • He showed up at 10. (showed what?)
    • Have you tried to cut down on coffee? (with a knife?)
    • Do you ever run out of energy? (go running outside energetically?)

    You can’t avoid using phrasal verbs, because they’re at the very heart of English. But be aware that they may cause difficulty. To be more helpful in the classroom, learn to use phrasal verbs followed by a re-phrasing to indicate what was meant. Your team might want to make a game of identifying your use of phrasal verbs and how to re-phrase them. For example:

    • eat out: eat at a restaurant;
    • show up: finally arrive, arrive late, come without an appointment or invitation
    • cut down on coffee: drink less coffee;
    • run out of energy: become very tired.
  6. Be aware of cultural differences that can cause difficulties

    Cultural differences definitely affect how well people understand what you are saying. For example, aspects such as the level of formality that you use and how you give advice can cause confusion.

    • Formality levels
      When meeting adults learning English, be aware that formality levels may be different in their first cultures. They may not be used to being addressed by their first names, or to calling a teacher or other professional by their first name. In the classroom, take your cue from the teacher, who will have explained to his or her class how the Canadian “system” works. To raise your own awareness, you might ask yourself whom you feel comfortable addressing by first name: a cashier at the supermarket? A university professor? Your grand-father? A colleague? Your boss? Your MP? The Prime Minister of Canada? A clerk at the Registrar’s Office? How do you decide, and what does your choice mean?
    • Giving advice and feedback
      The Canadian way of giving advice and feedback tends to be “soft” and indirect. Generally, we recommend actions rather than tell people what to do. You may want to try… You could do this… How about trying… It would be a good idea to… We know from the situation whether to take the advice seriously or not. For example, if your supervisor says it might be a good idea to do something, you hop to it!Foreigners (and not just adults learning English) may be confused by this and expect professional advice to be much more directive: Do this. Take 2 Aspirin. Stop giving your children pop at every meal. They may perceive suggestions as betraying a lack of confidence on your part (instead of the politeness and respect you intended). You may need to clarify your meaning (without becoming overbearing): Please drink a full glass of water with this pill. It’s very important. As always, observe their body language to ensure that they understood what you said and are not offended. You will likely find that they seem to appreciate receiving specific directions.


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