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English skills for international students - Pt. 1. Communicative acts and social norms

After a 13-hour bus ride from New York, I had only two things on my mind: food and passing out in my bed. As I was dragging my (not so big) suitcase through the downtown of my new home base, my eyes came across a Subway sign. “Subway it is” - I murmured, plodding across the street accompanied by the rumbling sounds of my stomach. I glanced over veggies, meat and cheese available - most of it looked familiar, although I was really salty to find out they didn’t have cheese sauce (apparently none of US Subways do!). I was about to say what veggies I wanted on my sub when I froze mid-sentence: I couldn’t remember a single damn name of the veggies I wanted. I totally blanked on the words lettuce, black olives, and even cucumbers. It’s not that I didn’t know them (even though I admit I probably hadn’t learned the word “lettuce” properly in the first place) - I’ve just never used them in speech before, so I didn’t have them “ready” if you will. I used good old pointing gestures and soon had myself a long overdue lunch.

A couple of weeks after I had settled in my new place, I heard a knock on the door one late afternoon. As I opened the door two guys nonchalantly greeted me: “Hey, what’s up?” I stared at them for a few seconds contemplating an appropriate answer. “I got absolutely nothing”, I thought, starting to panic. The pause felt awkward. “I’m good, how are you?” - I finally choked out. They burst out laughing, leaving me really embarrassed. Turned out they were our neighbors and invited us to hang out sometime. My American roommate overheard us talking and joined the conversation, matching their super informal, slang-heavy speaking. I happily excused myself and retreated upstairs to my room.

I had a hard time hearing what cashiers asked me at the checkout; I was at a loss trying to talk and listen during noisy social gatherings that American people prefer to have with very loud TV or music on; I was staring at strangers trying to not look dumb when I asked them to repeat what they had said to me for the third time in a row - especially when they didn’t speak clearly. And don’t even get me started on phone conversations and automated customer support.

I knew I would probably experience some awkward moments with native speakers, and I always thought grammar and vocabulary would be the culprits - or at least my pronunciation. The reality turned out to be a lot more complex. This post is an attempt to start tackling the issue of English skills for international students. We’ll talk about the types of communicative acts you are likely to encounter and the importance of social norms in language learning.

Typical communicative acts

When I imagined myself studying in the US, I mostly thought about using English in academic settings. Somehow it never occurred to me that I will have to speak on the phone with customer support, order food, and hang out with friends - I knew I will have everyday interactions but never actively thought about how different they might be in the US culture.

When we communicate in any language, we engage in communicative acts. I came up with a list of communicative acts that I deal with very often.

Academic settings:
★ Class discussions
★ Teaching
★ Talking with classmates
★ Talking with faculty members
★ Any other types of professional academic interactions
★ Writing papers
★ Email communication

Everyday life:
★ Talking with friends, especially if they are not graduate students
★ Interactions with service providers, such as baristas, waiters, cashiers, customer support, etc.
★ Talking on the phone (including voice messages and automated customer support)
★ Texting and messaging 

Types of communicating acts
★ Greetings and goodbyes
★ Asking permission
★ Polite requests
★ Using and understanding humor and jokes
★ Agreeing and disagreeing
★ Expressing gratitude
★ Expressing emotions

Not the most organized list ever but hey - the goal is to get you started on thinking about just how many cultural, social and linguistic nuances you will have to deal with while living in the US. Some of these aspects overlap but each of them tends to abide by specific social norms that impact the use of language.

The importance of social norms

“So what’s the big deal?”, you might ask, “I know enough English grammar and words to get by in any of these situations”.

And maybe you do - but that depends on your goal. You can combine words and build sentences using the right grammar, and people will understand you. This approach, however, doesn’t account for the fact that American people use certain words and grammar in certain contexts and for certain meanings (as well as different intonations and body language). Mismatching your communicative means and what’s acceptable or considered normal in the American society might be an obstacle to assimilating in the culture. Let’s take a look at an example.

You come to a coffee shop. When it’s your turn to get a drink, you say “A small coffee, please”. This is perfectly normal in my culture. In Russia my communication in this situation will boil down to saying these words and adding a thank you when I get my coffee. In the US baristas will be smiling at you, greet you and ask “how are you”, might compliment your shirt or hairstyle, and as they are waiting for you to pay they are likely to chitchat with you some (do small talk). It’s very common for customers to initiate small talk as well and ask for coffee in a more polite way such as “Can I have a small cup of coffee, please?” or “I’d like to have a small cup of coffee”. In Russia such interactions are perceived as transactions: you provide a service, I pay money for it. Chitchat does not belong there. In the US, it’s a part of personal communication. If you disregard body language cues (smiling), social expectations (totally ignore baristas’ small talk), and typical verbal context (say sentences that do not sound polite to the American ear), you might come across as impolite and reinforce people’s perception of you as a foreigner.

Even though your reputation in a local coffee shop is not very consequential to your everyday life, this scenario applies to pretty much every situation you will encounter living abroad. Even if your accent and grammar are impeccable, straying from social norms will slow down and hinder the process of assimilation and change how other people perceive you. We are all biased in different ways. How people perceive you might leverage their biases to form certain opinions of you, some of which might negatively affect their interactions with you.

Bottom line? There are a few.

★ Language learning is best when it’s driven by understanding how language functions in the context of specific social norms and across multiple social contexts.
★ If you want to avoid biases in other people’s perception, you will need to adhere to certain social norms through the use of socially appropriate language.
★ The best way to learn socially appropriate language is to expose yourself to as many social contexts as you can and observe not just what people say but how and why they say it.
★ Having established what is perceived as socially appropriate, your next move is to imitate it until it feels natural.
★ Remember: living in the US doesn’t mean you will stop actively learning English. You will have to put even more effort into it but the context will spur naturally as long as you are willing to engage in various social situations.

Nowadays replying to one’s “Heeeey what’s up?” is a habit that doesn’t require any thinking. It took multiple encounters to polish this language habit though. As long as you are tuned to perceive subtle (and not-so-subtle) social context of communication, you will reach “social” fluency in English - which, I would argue, is even more important than linguistic fluency per se.

So there you have it - I hope this post helped you think about your English skills in a different light. I am planning to give a lot more concrete examples for the communicative acts on my list in the future posts of the series, so stay tuned, folks!