Language and Communication

image of woman texting on her phone to a man texting back on his phone


The English Language can be one of the more difficult languages to learn, and you may find yourself in situations where you don’t understand someone’s meaning or they do not understand you. Don’t worry and just ask if you don’t understand something. You’ll find most Americans are eager to help and explain things.

Some of the difficulties non-native speakers experience with English are due to the following:

  • Idioms – A saying or group of words which doesn’t necessarily make sense but has a meaning. A list of commonly used idioms is available from the Oxford Royale Academy.
  • Exceptions to the rule – Although English has rules, it also has exceptions to the rules. For example “i” should come before “e,” except after “c.” But then there’s “science,” “weird,” and “seize.”
  • Order of words – When using more than one adjective to describe a noun, which order do they go in? Often, more than one version will be correct, but only one will sound right to a native speaker.
  • Pronunciation – English pronunciation can be the cause of much confusion for anyone learning English – silent letters, groups of letters that are pronounced differently in different words, words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, and words with little or few vowels all make pronunciation non-intuitive.
  • Emphasis – the way a word is emphasized can alter the meaning of the sentence or thought. For instance:
    • I sent her a letter – used to imply that you sent her the letter – someone else didn’t send it (or “you didn’t send it, I did”).
    • I sent her a letter – this could imply “I sent her a letter, but I’m not sure she received it.”
    • I sent her a letter – used to imply that you sent her the letter – you didn’t send it to someone else.
    • I sent her a letter – you sent him a letter, not anything else.
  • Homophones – these are words that sound the same but have different spellings or meanings. For example:
    • I decided to desert my dessert in the desert.
      • the first desert means “abandon” and has the emphasis placed on the second syllable
      • dessert is pronounced the same but means a sweet food
      • the second desert means a dry, arid, sandy environment, and is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable


Professional distance between instructor and student does exist in the United States, although it may not be as great as it is in other countries. U.S. students may feel more comfortable sharing their opinions and beliefs and asking about yours. They are encouraged to have their own opinions about their courses, material, and issues, which may or may not be in-line with the instructor’s. Students will expect to be recognized as the individuals they are and not singled out to represent or speak for their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

Professors and instructors are viewed as very knowledgeable in their fields but not as authorities or figures who cannot be questioned, doubted, or challenged. Student involvement and interaction is encouraged and rewarded. Sometimes this means students will speak up before you have finished asking the question or before the student’s thought has been completely formulated. For some instructors who were educated outside the US, such behavior from students can appear disrespectful or rude, when in fact students intend to demonstrate their engagement in classroom learning.

International instructors may feel like they must teach like a U.S. university teacher to earn students’ respect. However, most students do not expect you to behave like an American. Also, students may show interest in learning facts about other parts of the world within the context of a course. Depending on your course content, you may be able to incorporate examples or case studies from around the world. In this time of ever-increasing cross-cultural contact, students who have had experience interacting with people from different cultures will be at an advantage in their future workplace. You may wish to share this benefit with your students.


  • When calling someone on the telephone, always introduce yourself and ask for whom you wish to speak before beginning your conversation. If you are calling a place of business for a general question, such as how late they are open, it is acceptable to begin by asking the question.
  • When answering the phone, it is acceptable to answer simply with “hello” or with “this is (your name).”
  • It is not polite to call someone before 9 am or after 10 pm, unless it is an emergency. The only exception would be if he or she told you it is okay to call earlier or later.