by Cecil Stalnaker
“You’ve gotta take the bull by the horns,” I declared. The students looked puzzled. As an “English as a First Language” (EFL) speaker, I was talking to my class of twelve students who were all “English as a Second Language” (ESL) speakers from around the globe. Since they all spoke English, I assumed that they fully understood everything I said.
You've gotta take the bull by the horns,” I declared. The students looked puzzled. As an “English as a First Language” (EFL) speaker, I was talking to my class of twelve students who were all “English as a Second Language” (ESL) speakers from around the globe. Since they all spoke English, I assumed that they fully understood everything I said. But they didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.
After a few months of teaching missions and evangelism to ESL seminary students (a new experience for me), I began to learn that effective communication to an audience of ESL, multilingual and multicultural people is very complex. I had ministered, taught and preached in French for many years, so I expected that it would be a piece of cake to move into a ministry using my mother tongue. I took communicating in English for granted in my new ministry context.
Communicating to ESL speakers is increasingly important for these reasons: rapid economic and political globalization, more people learning English, the ease of global travel and an apparent growth of English language ministry contexts—intercultural missionary teams, intercultural mission conferences, mission consultations, multicultural schools and international churches. Although English is the common language in many ministry settings, this phenomenon also presents obstacles to effective communication.
In many cases, a native English speaker is “dropped” into these ministry settings—in churches, conferences, missionary teams and organizations, consultations and schools. We outsiders find ourselves among people of different cultures and levels of English ability, but unfortunately we often believe that we are totally understood. We think, “After all, everyone here speaks English.”
Native speakers must realize that ESL listeners not only do not speak and understand English as their mother tongue, they likely come from various cultural backgrounds. All language occurs in a cultural context. Not only does the speaker have the limits of his or her own culture, but he or she will likely talk with people from many different cultures. All ESL listeners encode the speaker’s words in light of their own worldview, behavioral patterns, social structures, cognitive processes, etc. Thus, communication becomes more complex.
In many ways, the key to speaking to ESL groups is “commonness.” All communication to listeners is an effort to establish commonness between the two parties. What do I as a speaker have in common with the audience? We are able to communicate if the audience can easily identify with what we are speaking about. Thus, in our preaching, teaching and general speaking to ESL audiences, it is important to revert to the lowest common denominators—the things that we hold in common. In this way, the audience will more likely comprehend what we intend to communicate. I have found the following “dos and don’ts” helpful in my present teaching ministry—an international school in which fifteen language groups are represented—and my local international church, with its thirty-five cultures and languages.
1. DO get to know your audience before speaking. Where are the people from? What is their age range? What is their ethnic and cultural composition? What do they expect from a speaker? Such questions will help you know how to best approach the audience. However, questions must be asked sensitively. One Ethiopian student said, “I’ve been asked if I live in a hut or a cave, or if I ever wore a shirt before coming to the US. When asked where I lived, I replied, ‘At the top of a tall tree.’ ‘And how do you get there?’ ‘We use elevators.’”
2. DO use a clear and simple but accurate English translation of the Bible in preaching and teaching. An accurate Bible translation that uses simple vocabulary and non-complex sentence structures, but avoids colloquial expressions, will enhance the audience’s comprehension. Some modern translations and paraphrases use too many colloquial phrases and may not be appropriate for the ESL audience.
3. DO help the audience visualize the content. Powerpoint, overhead transparencies or printed matter will help the listeners grasp the content of your presentation. Through the ear alone, they may miss points that you want to emphasize; providing a visual source will greatly help. This is especially important when quoting from other sources. When coupled with written words, images greatly aid the listeners.
4. DO speak slowly. Not too many things are worse for an ESL hearer than a fast speaker. Even though your audience does speak and understand English, it must listen to you two or three times more intensely in order to understand what you are saying. Any person who has learned another language will understand what I am talking about. If you don’t realize you speak too fast, a friend in the audience could discreetly signal when you are moving too rapidly. Or, you might even ask the audience after the first minute or two if you should slow down.
5. DO speak distinctly, keeping sentences simple. Speakers with accents are more difficult to understand and should make a conscious effort to speak clearly. My ESL international friends tell me that particularly speakers from the southern United States and certain British, Irish, Nigerian, Indian and Pakistani accents can be difficult to understand. I asked a French-speaking Belgian, well versed in the English language, what he thought of the message by an American from the South. He replied, “I speak the same language, but frankly I didn’t understand a word he said!”
6. DO employ a simple vocabulary. An impressive vocabulary may make the speaker look good but it hinders effective communication. Although many ESL people have a good knowledge of English, they may not grasp complex or esoteric vocabulary.
7. DO be careful of words with different meanings. Certain terms mean different things to different people. For instance, the word “college” does not mean “university” for Europeans, but “high school.” Because many people in your audience may have learned American English as opposed to British English, be careful when using terms that differ in meaning in the two vocabularies—terms such as “pants,” “vest,” “boot,” etc.
8. DO be careful about humor and jokes. Most humor is imbedded in culture and may not be understood by the listeners. Before using humor in public, try asking an insider: Does this convey a common understanding? For humor to be effective, people must share a common range of experience. In addition, in some cultures humor is not used regarding religious matters. Of course, avoid anything that relates to ethnocentrism. Making fun of something in a culture may be taboo and counter to the Lord’s desires. In some cases, you might make fun of yourself, but consult an insider on this, too.
9. DO seek advice beforehand regarding appearance, mannerisms and greetings. All audiences have expectations regarding these matters. Find out what is appropriate and inappropriate in the context, especially in a multicultural group. Consider clothing, jewelry and gestures before the actual speaking or teaching engagement. Put simply, effective communicators do not draw attention to themselves. Wearing certain jewelry, making particular gestures, sitting on a table, crossing one’s legs, showing the bottom of one’s shoes or not wearing a tie and/or coat, can destroy a speaker’s acceptability. The American preacher who makes an “OK” sign, touching his thumb to his forefinger in a circle, makes an obscene gesture in some parts of Latin America. Raising your left hand while preaching offends some Africans.
10. DO be appreciative of the culture(s) represented in the audience. Before God all cultures and races are equal. Although all cultures have sinful elements, most people appreciate when speakers sincerely praise positive aspects of the listeners’ culture. Sincere comments regarding hospitality, for example, can make your listeners more receptive.
1. DON’T employ puns and plays on words. Puns are self destructive. Such word plays as “Selling coffee has its perks,” “The lazy pagan was accused of having idol thoughts,” or “The liturgy seemed all rite to me” will likely confuse, not amuse most international and ESL audiences.
2. DON’T use idiomatic, colloquial and slang expressions. Sayings such as “Don‘t put the cart before the horse,” “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” “Let a sleeping dog lie” and “curiosity killed the cat” may be great for American speakers, but offer little to the ESL person. Idioms are rarely communicated effectively. Speakers seldom realize how many of these expressions they use, so this may be a hard habit to break. If these expressions need “translating” for the audience, their effectiveness is usually lost.
3. DO NOT use contractions. Expressions such as these lose the audience: “I don’t,” “I won’t,” “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” and “I’m gonna…” Thus, use the full expression (I am, will not, cannot, they have, it is, we are, etc.), and do so clearly and distinctly.
4. DON’T make use of “culture-bound” illustrations. Omit stories related to American football or British cricket. Forget stories related to the Super Bowl or World Series. Instead find “cross-cultural” illustrations to emphasize major points. If you desire a sports illustration, soccer or “real” football, as my international friends say, may help you communicate more clearly since it is the world’s most popular sport. Stories related to sports, politics and finances often fail to communicate unless the audience has the necessary background. Ask yourself if the illustration speaks to common experiences.
5. DON’T use “insider” initials for groups. Using acronyms such as PTA, NAACP, MP, NCAA, NBA, etc. loses people. Instead, refer to the group in sentence form or give a brief explanation. Conveying the exact organization is probably not as important as the thought.
6. DON’T give “grass is greener on the other side” impressions. Speaking of your own country in a superior manner decreases your credibility with the audience, may plant unrealistic ideas in their minds and diminishes your main point. Expressing equality and humility regarding one’s own culture is generally admired.
7. DON’T compare and contrast cultures. Any public evaluation of a culture and its behaviors can get you into trouble even if you mean well. Making an issue of the French putting butter on radishes rather than on corn, or the Belgians eating blood sausage, accomplishes nothing. Although Westerners won’t usually eat with their hands, orthodox Hindus consider it improper, maybe even unclean, to eat with knives and forks instead of with their own clean hands. These acts are neither right nor wrong—just different.
8. DON’T display any sense of superiority. Giving the impression that you have all the answers seldom goes well with multicultural audiences. You may have some answers, which may be why you were invited to address that audience, but demonstrating any sense of superiority will lower your credibility and reduce the effectiveness of your communication. Among many Asians a prideful attitude communicates nothing but spiritual immaturity. Humility is the wise direction to take. Of course, when preaching and teaching clear biblical truths, we need to be forthright without demonstrating arrogance.
Communicating to audiences of various cultural and linguistic backgrounds is a difficult and complicated skill to master. We have all learned to communicate in our own context, according to the way that we have been raised. However, by being more sensitive to our audience and making adjustments, we can become the communicators of biblical truth that God wants us to be.
Hesselgrave, David J. 1991. Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally: An Introduction to Missionary Communication. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Kohls, Robert L. 1979. Survival Kit for Overseas Living. Chicago: Intercultural Press, Inc.
Smith, Donald K. 1992. Creating Understanding: A Handbook for Christian Communication Across Cultural Landscapes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Storti, Craig. 1999. Figuring Foreigners Out: A Practical Guide. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc.
Cecil Stalnaker is associate professor of missions and evangelism at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands, which has a student body composed of fifteen different nationalities. He is also involved in an international church where the congregation has thirty-five different nationalities.
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