In this current context, the study investigates language and communication issues from the perspectives of two categories: (1) EAL professionals who are employed in their field and (2) managers in companies that employ them. Questions of language and communication need to be unpacked so that language educators, settlement services, employers, EAL immigrants and policy makers can understand language needs in more depth than a numerical proficiency level can provide. Investigating employers’ and EAL employees’ perspectives on communication experiences in the workplace can add to our understanding of these issues.
The study aims to capture participants’ hindsight and reflections on their own employment experiences, as managers or employees. It attempts to build on findings of the existing research and also opens up issues for further questioning. It presents insights but also uncovers contradictions, and identifies directions for further research and policy adjustment. The study reported here comprises the interview phase of a two-part project; the second part, an observational case study of immigrant professionals in the workplace, is currently underway.
Interviews of employers of EAL immigrant professionals and tertiary-educated EAL employees offer a focus on language and communication experiences in the workplace. Interviewees thus have the additional benefit of reflection and hindsight and the open-ended interview format allowed them to construct their own perspectives. While the study size and interpretive approach mean that the research findings are not generalizable, they present insights into issues that have been identified but not widely analyzed.
The current system of pre-immigration testing to determine the level of language readiness for the workplace does not adequately reflect the breadth and depth of communicative needs in particular workplace contexts.
For example, engineers who need to communicate with construction site workers, as well as clients on the telephone and colleagues in meetings need a range of English language competencies well beyond test taking skills.
Nevertheless, it might be expected that highly-qualified, experienced EAL immigrants would feel confident that once they pass the language test requirements, their English would be adequate to perform their work. One drawback for both employers and employees is that communicative language development takes time. If newly-hired employees need to work immediately with customers and clients, employers may be disappointed in their communication skills. Likewise, if employees are in a workplace with little regular interpersonal contact, including informal contact where they can talk without job performance stress, their language development is disadvantaged.
For example, the importance of asking questions and checking understanding can be emphasized, discussed and compared across cultures in language and work orientation programs. But employers can also adopt non-threatening strategies for checking comprehension, as well as giving feedback. Moreover, it is important to remember that miscommunication is a function of various situations and does not always arise from problems of English language ability.
They tended to see their job as particular tasks and responsibilities for which they were well-qualified and experienced. Employers, on the other hand, considered interaction at work to be essential to smooth functioning of the workplace and to the establishment and maintenance of workplace relationships. They faulted EAL employees’ general lack of engagement in workplace interaction.
This project has taken a step in investigating issues of language and communication in the workplace. The findings can be assessed against others’ knowledge and experience of employers and EAL immigrant professionals
COMMUNICATION ACCOMODATION THEORY
Communication accommodation theory (CAT) is a theory of communication developed by Howard Giles. It argues that “when people interact they adjust their speech, their vocal patterns and their gestures, to accommodate to others”. It explores the various reasons why individuals emphasize or minimize the social differences between themselves and their interlocutors through verbal and nonverbal communication. This theory is concerned with the links between “language, context and identity”. It focuses on both the intergroup and interpersonal factors that lead to accommodation as well as the ways in which power, macro and micro-context concerns affect communication behaviors.
 There are two main accommodation processes described by this theory. Convergence refers to the strategies through which individuals adapt to each other’s communicative behaviors, in order to reduce these social differences. Meanwhile, Divergence refers to the instances in which individuals accentuate the speech and non-verbal differences between themselves and their interlocutors. Sometimes when individuals try to engage in convergence they can also end up over-accommodating, and despite their good intentions their convergence can be seen as condescending.
Speech accommodation theory
The communication accommodation theory was developed by Howard Giles, professor of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It evolved from the speech accommodation theory (SAT), but can be traced back to Giles’ accent mobility model of 1973. The speech accommodation theory was developed in order to demonstrate the value of social psychological concepts to understanding the dynamics of speech. It sought to explain “the motivations underlying certain shifts in people’s speech styles during social encounters and some of the social consequences arising from them”.
Particularly, it focused on the cognitive and affective processes underlying individuals’ convergence and divergence through speech. The communication accommodation theory has broadened this theory to include not only speech but also the “non-verbal and discursive dimensions of social interaction”. Thus, it now encompasses other aspects of communication. In addition CAT has moved in a more interdisciplinary direction than the previous speech accommodation theory. It now also covers a wider range of phenomena.
Social psychology and social identity theory
Like speech accommodation theory, communication accommodation theory continues to draw from social psychology, particularly from four main socio-psychology theories: similarity-attraction, social exchange, causal distribution and intergroup distinctiveness. These theories help to explain why speakers seek to converge or diverge from the language, dialect, accent and behavior of their interlocutors. CAT also relies heavily in social identity theory. This later theory argues that a person’s self-concept comprises a personal identity and a social identity, and that this social identity is based in comparisons people make between in-groups (groups to which they belong) and out-groups (groups to which they don’t belong).
According to social identity theory, people strive to maintain a positive social identity by either joining groups where they feel more comfortable or making a more positive experience of belonging to the groups to which they already belong. Since speech is a way to express group membership, people adopt convergence or divergence in communication in order to “signal a salient group distinctiveness, so as to reinforce a social identity”. Communication accommodation thus, becomes a tool to emphasize group distinctiveness in a positive way, and strengthen the individual’s social identity.
Four main socio-psychologies Similarity-attraction
The similarity-attraction theory posits that “the more similar our attitudes and beliefs are to those of others, the more likely it is for them to be attracted to us”. Convergence through verbal and non-verbal communication is one of the mechanisms that we can use to become more similar to others, increasing their attraction towards us. For this reason, it can be said that one of the factors which leads individuals to use convergence is a desire to obtain social approval from his or her interlocutor.
It could hence be concluded that “the greater one’s need for social approval, the greater will be one’s tendency to converge.” Natalé (1975), for instance, has found that speakers with high needs for approval converge more to another’s vocal intensity and pause length than those with low needs for approval”. An individual on the receiving end of high level of accommodation is likely to develop a greater sense of self-esteem and satisfaction than being a receiver of low accommodation.
Social exchange process
The social exchange process theory “states that prior to acting, we attempt to assess the rewards and costs of alternate courses of action”, and that we tend to choose whatever course of action will bring greater rewards and less costs. Although most often convergence can bring forth rewards, there are some occasions when it can also bring forth costs such as “increased effort to converge, a loss of perceived integrity and personal (and sometimes group) identity”. Hence when choosing whether or not to use convergence people assess these costs and rewards.
Causal attribution process
The causal attribution theory “Suggests that we interpret other people’s behavior, and evaluate the individual themselves, in terms of the motivations and intentions that we attribute as the cause of their behavior” It applies to convergence in that convergence might be viewed positively or negatively depending on the causes we attribute to it: “Although interpersonal convergence is generally favorably received, and non-convergence generally unfavorably received, the extent to which this holds true will undoubtedly be influenced by the listeners attributions of the speaker’s intent”. Giles and Smith provide the example of an experiment that they conducted amongst French and English speaking Canadians, in order to illustrate this.
In this experiment, when individuals believed that the person from the different group used language convergence in order to reduce cultural barriers it was more positively evaluated than when they attributed convergence to the pressures of the situation, which forced them converge. “When French Canadian listeners attributed an English Canadian’s convergence to French as due to his desire to break down cultural barriers, the shift was viewed favorably. However, when this same behavior was attributed to pressures in the situation forcing the other to converge, positive feelings were not so strongly evoked”.
The process of intergroup distinctiveness, as theorized by Tajfel argues “that when members of different groups are in contact, they compare themselves on dimensions which are important to them, such as personal attributes, abilities, material possessions and so forth”.
In these “intergroup social comparisons” individuals seek to find ways in which they can make themselves positively distinct from the out-group in order to enhance their social identity. Because speech style and language is an important factor in defining social groups, divergence in speech style or language is often employed in order to maintain intergroup distinctiveness and differentiate from the out-group, especially when group membership is a salient issue or the individual’s identity and group membership is being threatened.
Many of the principles and concepts from social identity theory are also applicable to communication accommodation theory. Under the influence of social psychology, especially social identity theory, communication accommodation theory are guided by mainly four assumptions. * There are speech and behavioral similarities and dissimilarities in all conversations. * The way in which we perceive the speech and behaviors of another will determine our evaluation of the conversation. * Language and behaviors have the ability to communicate social status and group belonging between people in a conversation. * Norms guide the accommodation process which varies in its degree of appropriateness.
The first assumption indicates that people bring their past experience to conversations. Therefore, communication is not only influenced by situational conditions and initial reactions but the “social-historical context in which the interaction is embedded”. People’s attitudes and beliefs, derived from those factors, determine the extent to which they are willing to accommodate in a conversation. The more similarities they share with each other, the more likely for them to accommodate. The second assumption is concerned with how people perceive and evaluate a conversation. Perception is “the process of attending to and interpreting a message” and evaluation is the “process of judging a conversation”. When someone enters a conversation, usually he first observes what takes place and then decides whether he should make adjustment to fit in.
However, the decision about accommodation is not always necessary. Imagine the encounter of two strangers, they may have a random small talk and simply say goodbye. In this case, neither of them is likely to evaluate the conversation since they have little possibility to meet again. The importance of language and behaviors is illustrated in the third assumption since they are indicators of social status and group belongings. When two people who speak different languages try to have a conversation, the language they agree to communicate with is more likely to be the one used by the higher status person.
This idea of “salient social membership” negotiation is well illustrated in the situation of an interview as the interviewee usually makes all efforts to identify with the interviewer by accommodating the way he speaks and behaves so that he can have more chance to secure the job. The last assumption puts emphasis on social appropriateness and norms.
Here norms are defined as “expectations of behaviors that individuals feel should or should not occur in a conversation”. Those expectations give guidance to people’s behaviors, helping them to figure out the appropriate way to accommodate. Most of the time, the accommodation made according to those norms are perceived socially appropriate. For instance, when a young person talks to the seniors in his family, he should avoid using jargons among his generation to show respect and communicate more smoothly.
Convergence, over-accomodation, and divergence
Convergence refers to the process through which an individual shifts his speech patterns in interaction so that they more closely resemble the speech patterns of his interlocutor(s). People can converge through many features of communication such as their use of language, their “pronunciation, pause and utterance lengths, vocal intensities, nonverbal behaviors, and intimacy of self-disclosures”(Giles and Smith, 1979, 46), but they do not necessarily have to converge simultaneously at all of these levels. In fact people can both converge at some levels and diverge through others at the same time. People use convergence based on their perceptions of others, as well as what they are able to infer about them and their backgrounds. Attraction (likability, charisma, credibility), also triggers convergence. As Turner and West note, “when communicators are attracted to others they will converge in their conversations”.
On the other hand, as the similarity attraction theory highlights, when people have similar beliefs, personality and behaviors they tend to be more attracted towards each other. Thus when an individual shifts his speech and non-verbal behaviors in order to assimilate to the other it can result in a more favorable appraisal of him that is: when convergence is perceived positively it is likely to enhance both the conversation and the attraction between the listener and the speaker. For this reason it could be said that convergence reflects “an individual’s desire for social approval” from his interlocutor, and that the greater the individual’s need for social approval, the more likely he or she is to converge.
Besides attraction, other factors which “influence the intensity of this “need of approval and hence the level of convergence “includes the probability of future interactions, the social status of the addressee, and interpersonal variability for need of social approval”. Other factors that determine whether and to what extent individuals converge in interaction are their relational history, social norms and power variables.
Because individuals are more likely to converge to the individual with the higher status it is likely that the speech in a conversation will reflect the speech of the individual with the higher status. Converging also increases the effectiveness of communication, which in turn lowers uncertainty, interpersonal anxiety, and increases mutual understanding. This is another factor that motivates people to converge.
However, although people usually have good intentions when they attempt to use convergence in conversation, some interlocutors can perceive convergence as patronizing and demeaning and hence just as it can enhance conversation it can also detract from the processes of communication. Over accommodation can exist in three forms: Sensory over accommodation, dependency over accommodation, and intergroup over accommodation. Sensory over accommodation is when an individual thinks that he is being accommodative to someone’s linguistic or physical disability but overdoes it, so that the other person perceives his behavior as patronizing.
Dependency over accommodation refers to the situations “when the speaker places the listener in a lower-status role so that the listener is made to appear dependent on the speaker and he or she understands that the speaker is the primary speaker in the conversation in order to communicate a higher status”. And finally, intergroup over accommodation involves manipulating people based on a general stereotype and not as individuals with an individual persona.
The socially categorized stereotypes that people hold of others result in these cognitively linked forms of over-accommodation. Over-accommodation takes place in all types of circumstances. For example, it is not uncommon for nurses or caretakers to speak to their elderly patients in baby talk. While the nurses may have the purest of intentions to care and to “relate” to them, the patients actually end up feeling degraded and underestimated. In this particular case, it also can cause difficulty in adapting to an institution and a dysfunctional environment.
Divergence is a linguistic strategy whereby a member of a speech community accentuates the linguistic differences between his or herself and his interlocutor. In the most part it reflects a desire to emphasize group distinctiveness in a positive manner and it usually takes places when an individual perceives interaction as an intergroup process rather than an individual one.
“Given that communication features… are often core dimensions of what it is to be a member of a group, divergence can be regarded as a very important tactic of displaying a valued distinctiveness from the other.”, This helps to sustain a positive image of one’s in-group and hence to strengthen one’s social identity. Divergence can thus be a way for members of different groups to maintain their cultural identity, a mean to contrast self-images when the other person is considered a member of an undesirable group, and a way to indicate power or status differences, as when one individual wishes to render another one less powerful.
Components of CAT
Further research conducted by Gallois et al. in 1995 has expanded the theory to include 17 propositions that influence these processes of convergence and divergence. They are categorized into four main components: the sociohistorical context, the communicators’ accommodative orientation, the immediate situation and evaluation and future intentions.These components are essential to Communication accommodation Theory and affect the course and outcome of intercultural conversations.
The sociohistorical context refers to way in which past interactions between the groups to which the communicators belong influence the communication behaviors of the communicators. It includes “the relations between the groups having contact and the social norms regarding contact”. These relations between the different groups to which the communicators belong, influence the communicators’ behavior. Amongst these socio-historical factors which influence communicators are: political or historical relations between nations, the different religious or ideological views between possessed by the two groups participating in the conversation, amongst others.
Accommodative orientation refers to the communicator’s “tendencies to perceive encounters without group members in interpersonal terms, intergroup terms, or a combination of the two”. There are three factors that are crucial to accommodative orientations: (1) “intrapersonal factors” (e.g. personality of the speakers), (2) “intergroup factors” (e.g. communicators’ feelings toward out-groups), and (3) “initial orientations” (e.g. perceived potential for conflict).
The issues which influence this last factor include: collectivistic culture context or whether the culture is collectivistic or individualistic; distressing history of interaction, the possible tensions that exist between groups due to past interactions; stereotypes; norms for treatment of groups; and high group solidarity/ high group dependence, how dependent the person’s self-worth is in the group.
The immediate situation refers to the moment in which the actual communication takes place. It is shaped by five aspects which are interrelated: (1) “sociopsychological states”, (2) “goals and addressee focus” (e.g. motivations and goals for the encounter), (3) “sociolinguistic strategies” (e.g. convergence or divergence), (4) “behavior and tactics” (e.g. topic, accent) and (5) “labeling and attributions”.
Evaluation and future intentions
This aspect deals with how communicators perceive their conversational partners’ behavior and its effects on future encounters between the two groups. Positively rated conversations will most likely lead to further communication between the interlocutors and other members of their respective groups.
Communication Accommodation Theory in Action
In 1991, Giles, Coupland, and Coupland expressed the belief that a “more qualitative perspective” would be necessary in order to obtain more diverse and clarifying explanations of the behaviors presented within varying contexts. They referred to this as “the applied perspective” that showed accommodation theory as a vital part of day-to-day activity as opposed to solely being a theoretical construct. They sought to “demonstrate how the core concepts and relationships invoked by accommodation theory are available for addressing altogether pragmatic concerns”. For Giles, Coupland, and Coupland, these “pragmatic concerns” were extremely varied in nature.
One of these “pragmatic concerns” included understanding the relational issues that present themselves in the medical and clinical fields, such as the relational “alternatives, development, difficulties, and outcomes,” which affected the patients’ contentment with their medical interactions and whether or not, through these interactions, they agreed with and implemented said health care regimens. Another of these situations involved the potential options in a legal arena. The way that the judges, plaintiffs, and defendants accommodated themselves to both the situation and the jury could manipulate the jury’s acceptance or rejection of the defendant, and could, thus, control the outcome of the case.
Communication accommodation theory was also found to have a place in media. In regards to radio broadcasting, the alliance of the audience with the broadcaster played an important part in both the ratings that the shows would receive and whether the show progressed or was cancelled. In the area of jobs and employment, accommodation theory was believed to influence the satisfaction one has with his or her job and the productivity that that person possesses in said job through convergence with or divergence from the co-workers and their work environment. Accommodation theory also possessed practical applications in the development of learning a second language.
This was seen when the student’s education of and proficiency in said language was either assisted or hindered by accommodative measures. Giles, Coupland, and Coupland (1991) also addressed the part that accommodation theory plays in a situation they called “language switching”, when bilingual individuals must decide which language they should speak when they are in an organizational environment with other bilingual individuals. This can be an incredibly important choice to make, especially in a business setting, because an incorrect judgment in this area of communication could unwittingly promote negative reactions between the two or more parties involved.
In addition, accommodation theory was strongly intertwined with the way an immigrant accepts and is accepted by their host country. An instance of over-accommodation from the immigrating individual can unintentionally damage that person’s sense of individuality while a strong divergence from the immigrating individual from their host culture can prompt the natives of the host country to react negatively to them because of the immigrating individual’s use of divergence.
The final area of practical application, as presented by Giles, Coupland, and Coupland (1991), was that of accommodation theory’s effect on the lives of people with disabilities. Accommodation theory was thought to either aid them by promoting them to “fulfill their communicative and life potentials,” or by hindering them from reaching their full potential by focusing on the disability that made them different rather than the other characteristics that made them similar to their peers. Despite the fact that communication accommodation theory is theoretical, it has shown itself to be viable by its numerous practical applications.
Communication Accommodation Theory in Action among Diverse Cultural Groups
Researchers of communication accommodation theory have been interested in conversations between the elderly and the young; actively apply this theory to analyze intergenerational communication situations. Since aging of population is growing to become a serious issue in current society, communication difficulties of older adults and issues like ageism should be addressed. According to mainstream sociolinguistic studies, age is regarded as a variable only to the extent that it may show patterns of dialectal variation within speech communities across time.
However, “the existence of potentially important generational differences relating to beliefs about talk, situational perceptions, interactional goals, and various language devices between the young and the elderly as empirical questions in their own right “are all taken into account when using communication accommodation theory to explore intergenerational communication problems and improve effectiveness. Previous research have also developed models such as the communication predicament model of ageing and the communication enhancement model of ageing to point out numerous consequences brought by both negative and positive attitudes towards aging.
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