What do the AMEE Conference, Reddit, and popular programming languages - such as Java - have in common? If you answer that they are all based on English, you are correct. Though they are international, their medium of choice, like many other things, is English. The landscape of academia is also English-based, as English publications are far more numerous that those of other languages.

Therefore, native English speakers may naturally feel more at ease communicating with an international audience. However, this BBC article describes why non-native speakers can be more effectual English communicators in these settings, and native speakers should step up their game.

I grew up in Bangkok, Thailand. After high school I went to study in the Northeast of the country. To my surprise, many things I said were not understood by my local peers. When I said, "This person has the political power of [a type of Chinese noodle]," they didn't know that I meant ‘a lot of power.’ Conversely, when a local said, "I want to feel shy," I had no idea that the expression meant “one feels shy but is happy.” We all spoke Thai, but from time to time we couldn’t understand each other.

This is a normal phenomenon, as regional differences exist in every language. In the Bangkok lingo, there are a lot of Chinese terms due to Bangkok’s large ethnic Chinese population. The Northeast is culturally close to Laos, so there are a lot of Laotian phrases and idioms. The same thing also happens in English. "Rough sleeping" (a euphemism for homelessness) is widely understood in the UK but is unheard of in the US. If an Australian says they are getting a "physio" (a physical therapy session,) most Americans will be left puzzled.

Fortunately, domestic differences are easily reconciled. I quickly became accustomed to Northeast phrases and expressions. It also shouldn't be hard for a New Yorker to understand a Texan. But this problem becomes more profound across borders and especially between native and non-native speakers. As noted in the BBC article, native speakers tend to use idioms, expressions, and cultural references; this is how to speak a language vernacularly, as one would in everyday conversations. On the other hand, non-native speakers tend to speak purposefully and stick to standard definitions; this is how to speak a language as a lingua franca (common language,) as it provides comprehensibility for speakers from different cultural backgrounds. These two ways to speak a language are very different. Thus, native speakers may have a hard time being understood by non-native speakers if they speak colloquially.

As an example, imagine that a colleague says, "This issue seems right in your wheelhouse, so I'm gonna leave you be." This is an example of speaking a language vernacularly, using a cultural reference (a baseball term) and an informal phrasal verb.

If you know the idiom "in someone's wheelhouse" and the possible meanings of the phrasal verb "to leave someone be," you will understand that this colleague thinks you are equipped to handle the issue, and they will leave the task to you. But if you don't, there are many other ways to interpret this sentence. Does this colleague think that you want to do it so badly, and they don't want to fight over it? Maybe they think that it isn't worth pursuing, and they don't want to work on it? These aren't wild guesses based on the words used, and yet they each lead to very different outcomes, some potentially damaging. A simple phrasing using standard meanings such as "You are good at this, so you do it," works better in situations that demand a lingua franca.

In another example, a speaker at a conference says, “The answer is up in the air.” Do not be surprised if non-native speakers start searching databases for a definite answer because they think “up in the air” means “already published and out there.” Worse yet, they may wonder why the speaker is withholding information for no apparent reason!

The BBC article explains how this problem is not limited only to English. But in general, native speakers of other languages are more aware of how to speak a language as a lingua franca, as most must speak at least one foreign language, English. In contrast, plenty of native English speakers may never have to learn another language, and hence may not be aware of this issue. This leads to an odd situation in which non-native speakers with diverse native languages can understand each other well using English, but communication may break down once a native speaker enters the conversation. 

Misunderstandings can be costly in business transactions and other sensitive situations. The same BBC article mentions how a single misunderstood word caused a company’s major project to fail. Another word, mistranslated from Japanese because it was used cryptically, led to the death of more than 135,000 people.

The point is, speaking a language as a lingua franca is a crucial skill, one that many native speakers may not yet possess. Ironically, non-native speakers may do a better job at this due to their limited vocabulary. This problem exists in every language, but it does so on a larger scale in English due to its status as the de facto global language. Failing to realize this has the potential to break a relationship or a deal. As there are vastly more non-native English speakers, it is important for native speakers to be aware of this issue, particularly when communicating with a diverse audience. 

As health professionals and educators, it is of utmost importance for us to be aware of communication barriers, as communication breakdowns can harm our patients and students. Therefore, use simple phrasings, avoid idioms, and stick to the standard meanings. It is also important to reaffirm that we understand and are understood. The most important goal is to be an effective communicator, not a proficient vernacular speaker.

Atipong Pathanasethpong, MD, MS

Atipong Pathanasethpong, MD MMSc (MedEd) (Educators ’15, Leaders ‘15) is a graduate of the MMSc in Medical Education Program at Harvard Medical School. Atipong works as an anesthesiologist and medical educator at Faculty of Medicine, Khon Kaen University, Thailand. He is currently active in instructional design and in disseminating cognitive science concepts to his trainees and colleagues. You can reach Atipong via Twitter