Mindfulness in Communication

By Bryce Bower, Staff Writer

When I was considering grad schools, one of the main aspects of Thunderbird that appealed to me was the fabled “Global Mindset.” As I understand it, this mindset means that T-birds are opposed to the belief that one’s culture or way of life is superior to others. We’re are supposed to feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations, especially when traveling to other lands or interacting with other cultures. A global mindset is one that is patient, empathetic, and humble. I expected everyone who worked at Thunderbird to share these attributes — but I must admit that I am concerned about the communication skills of some staff and faculty members at this international school.

While I don’t have a background in accounting or finance and I have never started a company, if there is one thing I do know it is the process of learning a foreign language and communicating across cultures. I have a Bachelor’s degree in International Communication and took classes on cross-cultural communication, linguistics, methods of teaching language, and worked as a language tutor for over two years. I spent a school year in France, half a year in Germany, and half a year in Spain. I am currently learning my fifth language, Russian. I feel that my experience allows me to knowledgeably speak about what it is like to study in another language and the difficulties that people face when communicating in a foreign language.

The first week of Foundations I discovered two important things. Firstly, some international students are very nervous about speaking English, regardless of how well they actually know the language. Secondly, several of the staff and professors use words and phrases that are extremely colloquial, without explaining what they mean in any other terms. They don’t modify the words they use or change how well they enunciate, and people who work at Thunderbird come from all over and bring their own accents. After talking with many second year international students who have had over 10 different teachers, as well as the first year international students who have had at least 5, they confirmed my suspicion: a number of key points taught in these classes were being misunderstood, due to the way that some professors speak.  I don’t know if the teachers are aware of this.

I know that this is a graduate program in America, and that therefore students shouldn’t be taught using only elementary vocabulary; but there are some words that you simply cannot expect a non-native speaker to know. When use in context, students can usually figure out what the meaning of an unknown word is, but it is extremely frustrating when context does not offer the necessary clues.  Let me give you an example:

“The Minister of Trade expects the tuna industry to _______ this year due to renegotiation of the free trade agreement; this comes as a surprise to those in fishing villages on the coast.”

From context, you would know that the blank word is either something akin to “improve” or “worsen”, but you can’t be sure which one.  This is hard enough on paper, but if you are in class trying to write notes while also processing the words you hear in a language that is not your native tongue, one unknown word – even in context – may cause you to miss the point entirely. Now if you are being tested over material that you did not fully understand, and are ashamed to admit you did not understand, your grades may not accurately reflect your aptitude or effort.

Pride, but not an arrogant pride, plays a role in this problem as well. Some international students I have talked to told me that they are embarrassed to ask a professor or a friend the meaning of a word or phrase. I can relate. I can remember several occasions where I thought that if I had asked a native what a word meant, they would think less of my ability to speak that language. I believe that this problem hasn’t been addressed because people are afraid of the response they would receive if they were to bring it up.

The purpose of this article is not to point fingers, but to encourage mindfulness when talking with other people. I understand that in the “Real World” most businessmen and businesswomen will not cater to the needs of our friends who speak English as a foreign language. I realize it is important for ESL speakers to be exposed to many different styles of spoken English, so that they become accustomed to understanding all sorts of people. I understand these are graduate level classes with graduate level vocabulary. However, and this is a big however, students should not be tested, judged, or graded on how many American idioms they know. The purpose of higher education at Thunderbird is to develop critical thinking and competency with a Global Mindset, not to test someone’s vocabulary or knowledge of English slang.

I would encourage students, staff, and professors alike to pay attention to the words and expressions they use when speaking to international students. I don’t mean dumb down your language completely, simply be mindful of the specific words and phrases you use as well as the volume, speed, and clarity with which you say them. If you are a professor or a presenter who often use phrases like “Joe Shmoe”, “give someone the pink slip”, “widget”, “greenbacks” or “like one pig waits for another”, or uses words with 5 or more syllables, I would like to ask that you please explain them the first time you use them. If you are a professor who sounds like you are rapping a verse from Eminem’s song “Rap God” (where he says 97 words in 15 seconds) when explaining the requirements for a group project, I would ask that you slow down a little. Just be mindful of your communication style.

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