One of the more difficult areas for adult non-native speakers of English is cultural knowledge and history. All languages have so many idioms and sayings that would only be known to one growing up within that country. For some with children, they may learn some of that information as their children share the cultural knowledge and values with parents learned through school and social activities.
I recall one of my clients who asked me to attend his first meeting as a group leader. He was somewhat nervous, but he appeared confident and in charge. As he began the meeting he asked if anyone had seen a team member who had not yet arrived. One of the American born team members remarked that the last time he had seen Jack it was on the side of a milk carton. The group members laughed at that, but my client didn't get the joke.
At that moment I could see much of my client’s confidence slip away. He had no way of knowing that once upon a time pictures of missing children were put on milk cartons to help spread awareness of their appearance to the general public.
Not being in on the joke can erode confidence. Although ESL speakers can never absorb the cultural knowledge of a native, it is important to learn some of the cultural issues that are frequently discussed at work. It may be sports, politics, or community issues. Reading current events or American novels are just two ways to gain some of this information. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to help you to understand topics or sayings that are new to you. Use the internet to search for the meanings of idioms and how they originated.
Our PRISM program provides multiple websites that are helpful to nonnative speakers interested in expanding their knowledge in hard to learn areas. We often discuss topics clients should pursue that may be useful to the important office talk that occurs before, after, and during the business day. Working on understanding idioms and how they are used at work helps ESL speakers integrate into the group dynamic and be a more effective team member or leader.