Negotiating meaning to avoid misunderstandings

Many of us teaching languages have also experienced being on the other side of the desk: learning them.  Over the years I’ve pretty much mastered German, I’m fairly fluent in Spanish, have a good working knowledge of French and I’ve even dipped into Russian and Japanese…  Of the many embarrassing experiences I’ve had in most of those languages almost all of them occurred when I made assumptions about language use rather than checking I really understood.  Literally translating ‘I am full’ from English, I managed to tell the French host family I stayed with at 14 that I was having a baby – you should have seen their faces!!  At 20 I told my new German housemates I wanted to go to a strip club or ‘Nachtklub’ rather than the nightclub/disco I’d been thinking of.  On countless occasions I’ve asked for directions two or three times and still failed to find my destination, and I can count on more than one hand the number of times a dish has arrived at restaurants which bore no resemblance to what I thought I had ordered.
Negotiating meaning pic
One major language strategy can’t be taught enough: the skill of negotiating meaning.  This is a process in which a listener asks for clarification and confirmation of a message, and a speaker follows up these requests, often using repetition, elaboration, or simplification of the original message.  All levels of language learners frequently fail to confirm and clarify their own use of language, as well as their understanding of an intended message.  Why’s it so important?  Well, the number of English speakers in the world is currently estimated at around 1.5 billion.  It is the language of international business and therefore considered the key to prosperity.  Multinationals such as Airbus, Siemens, Nokia and Renault have introduced English as the language of internal communications, but it’s also the language which Chinese business people are using to conduct business with Indians, Russians with Argentinians, and so on.  At a meeting of non-native speakers of English the room for misunderstanding is huge.  Where there are financial or strategic consequences at stake, those speakers need to ensure they can adequately negotiate meaning.    And in a more simple context which I came across recently, had one learner thought to confirm his own language use with his native speaker colleagues, rather than assume he was correct, he would now be carrying around business cards which announced he was the ‘Freight Manager’, and not the ‘Fright Manager’  – scary, isn’t it?!

In the business English classroom there are a number of ways in which we can practice this strategy.  Giving and receiving complex instructions between colleagues, information gap activities such as jigsaw readings and spot the difference exercises are excellent activities that give learners the opportunity to develop their communicative competence through negotiation of meaning as they share information.   I’ve prepared a lesson which you can download here, to draw learners’ attention to the importance of clarifying and confirming understanding, as well as providing them with an opportunity to practice language items which will help them negotiate meaning.  I hope it is useful – please drop me a line and give me your feedback!

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5 comments

  1. u r very proud of learning more than 3 languages, im challenging with English only n now trying to get the new one, maybe Chinese. This your entry is very useful for me. Thanks

  2. I certainly agree with you that the best way so as not to make many embarrasing or misleading mistakes is to ask the person you are addressing to repeat what he or she has replied. Students of a foreign language, as I am, find it difficult to show they haven’t understood well. I try to encourage my pupils to avoid doing that. I have found the exercise you recommend above highly useful.

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