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Overcoming Communication Challenges for ESL Professionals

Two women talking to each other

Working with clients across Asia and North America who are of Asian descent has provided me with valuable insights into the communication hurdles faced by ESL professionals in international companies. While not all individuals fall into these categories, I have noticed a recurring issue among my clients—they often encounter difficulties in effectively communicating at their workplace due to various reasons.

I am dedicating the next month to exploring the common struggles that my clients have and sharing some steps you can take on your own to improve your communication. This may not be the article for you but the net one may be so please follow for more articles.

The Perfection Paradox: ESL Clients' Language Concerns

One big concern that plagues many of my ESL clients is an overwhelming emphasis on language perfection, whether it be in speaking or writing. They tend to excessively worry about grammar and the size of their vocabulary. However, in reality, they possess a functional vocabulary and their grammar is ‌understandable. To understand the reasons behind this discrepancy, it's crucial to reflect on how we learned English differently.

Grammar-Centric Education in Asian Cultures

Classroom with orderly tables and chairs
How did we fit in those tiny seats?

Asian cultures often prioritize grammar in language education. Teachers dedicate most of their lessons to teaching grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary definitions, followed by quizzes to assess understanding.

You are probably familiar with the books of business English vocabulary that are aimed at helping ESL learners to improve their English.

This emphasis on memorization and perfection rather than function, is reflected in an incident involving a Korean student I once worked with.

The student had recently taken an English exam as part of her middle school assessment. The exam comprised a fill-in-the-blank question set, and to her surprise, her public school teacher marked one of her answers as incorrect. Perplexed, she approached me, a native English speaker, seeking clarification on her mistake.

Upon reviewing her response, I found no errors.

The sentence made perfect sense.

I advised her to consult her teacher for further explanation. To her dismay, the teacher justified the marking by claiming that the class had not yet learned the specific vocabulary word used in her answer.

Restrictive Curricula and Language Mastery

Dice lined up except on on the top right hand corner
Language isn't about perfection but expression.

Now, I have to make it clear that not every student goes through this, but there are definitely cases where rigid curricula leave no room for alternative answers. It's like they teach you that there's only one right answer, one wrong answer, and anything else is just plain wrong.

But here's the thing: language isn't so black and white. It's not a rigid set of rules that you either follow perfectly or fail miserably. In reality, there are countless word choices that can perfectly fit a given context. Sure, some choices may be better than others, but they're all valid options. And you know who gets this? Native English speakers. We get it because when we were learning the language; they did not punish us for using simple words. As long as we could get our thoughts across coherently, that's what mattered most.

When it came to writing essays, it wasn't about trying to impress with fancy words or obsessing over flawless grammar (although grammar is important for clarity, let's not forget that). No, the real focus was on conveying our ideas and backing them up with solid reasoning.

I’m not convinced I’m at that level!

Ok, so you’ve read the article but aren’t convinced that you have the functional level of English that I’m talking about. Fair enough.

How do you find out? Here is how you figure it out.

1. What do you want?

Darts on a dartboard
Be specific as to what you want.

You need to outline what level of English you are actually aiming for. BE SPECIFIC. It would be great if we all learned English for 20 mins a day and became a native level but that’s not the reality.

If you are aiming to be an individual contributor, the level of English you need will differ from being a manager or a director. Be frank with yourself and answer the question of what you want to be able to do.

  • Listening

    • Understand --% of a group meeting

    • Understand --% of 1 on 1

  • Reading

    • Read a 20 page work document in -- min

    • Read an email in -- min

  • Speaking

    • Speak in group meetings

    • Lead/Host a group meeting

    • Give critical feedback in a group/1 on1

    • Persuade and defend a proposal

    • Negotiate work contract

    • Speak at a conference or run a workshop for a large group

  • Writing

    • Write email/document/newsletter in under __ min

    • Write at the same level as --

2. Get Feedback

5 clay yellows stars on a simple pink and blue background
Judgement day!

You can’t be object about your own writing and speaking skills. You’ve been schooled into thinking you need tests to evaluate yourself and have focused on all the times you’ve been wrong. This is going to make you bad at evaluating your own work. Sorry.

So you need someone else. Pick someone who will giv eyou honest feedback and has seen you in various settings.

Sit them down, lay out your English goals and ask them to giv eyou feedback on how close you are to them.

Feeling vulnerable? It’s not easy but it is the fastest way to know how much time, effort and money you need to invest.

Don’t have a trusted advisor, you can book a free consultation with me. I’ve been working with professionals for years and can give you detailed feedback in 15 minutes.


For ESL individuals, it is crucial to recognize that excessive worry about grammar should take a backseat to the development and expression of ideas. While maintaining understandable grammar is important, the primary focus should be on presenting ideas and supporting them with sound reasoning.

By shifting the focus from language perfection to effective communication, ESL professionals can overcome the barriers they face in international workplaces.


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