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'What did he just say?'

The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!

Last Friday, I attended the first of the immigration forums here on Saipan. These forums have been organized to inform people of the changes in immigration policy as a result of the Nov. 28, 2009 federalization of CNMI immigration law. The presenter was Marie Thérèse Sebrechts, USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) regional media manager. As I mentioned to Marie afterwards, her talk was one of the best I’d heard on Saipan. She was clear, effective, and easy to understand. Her visual aids were easy to follow and she used simple language. And considering the complexity of the subject matter, it was perhaps a testament to her sensitivity to some of the issues I’m about to discuss. So, as we say in Jamaica, "nuff respect*" to Marie for inspiring today’s column.

What that forum and others like it brought to mind is the importance of effective communication to audiences who are not native speakers of a given language—in this case, English. Now, in all fairness, many of our new guests on Saipan may not have had training or practice dealing with the many cultural and language groups here on Saipan. However, since federalization is likely to bring more newcomers to these shores with presentations of their own, I’d like to offer a few tips. First, however, let’s understand the basis for those tips.


The concept of learning and comprehension has been studied for centuries, but there’s a little fact that many people don’t know, and it is this: the only reason someone gets frustrated with, gives up on, abandons or misunderstands some new information, a course or lecture, for instance, is because they encountered, then went past a word or phrase they did not understand. In other words, they kept reading, or kept listening even after encountering an unknown word.

Think about it. Have you ever been reading a book and then gotten to the end of the page and realized you didn’t understand anything you just read? That’s because, somewhere earlier on that page you encountered a word you didn’t understand or didn’t have the correct definition for, but you kept reading. The void created by that unknown word affected all comprehension after it.

Or imagine you’re speaking with someone in a new language, and they say a word you’ve never heard before. You get distracted by that unknown word, and the meaning of the entire conversation is lost as your mind grapples with that one word you missed at the beginning.

The solution to the dilemma of the unknown word is to stop, find a dictionary, get the right meaning, and then continue. However, that’s often not practical or possible in a public forum, and why it is therefore vitally important for the speaker to take the initiative to be effective in his/her communication.

Let’s say you’re giving a public talk on immigration policy. You start your speech, but you’re not careful about the language you use, how articulate you are being, or not following the tips I’ll soon share. What happens? You will start to lose your audience, and losing your audience in such an important public forum has profound effects. People get bored when they don’t grasp what’s being said, they get fidgety, they tune out, they start talking amongst themselves (out of boredom, and also to clarify for themselves what you just said), the energy in the room changes, confusion reigns, you lose control of the flow of the session, frustrated people leave with misheard information, rumors spread, community agitation increases, riots start and wars erupt! OK, maybe those last two are a bit of an exaggeration of the tragedy, but I hope you see the far-reaching effects poor communication can have when important matters are being discussed.

The point is, there’s always the need to speak with people for whom English is not their native language. Being aware of the concept of the unknown word avoids confusion, improves your effectiveness, maximizes listener comprehension, and, if you’re doing business in a culturally-diverse setting like Saipan, it can mean the difference between losing money and making a profit. So, with that said, I’d like to offer some of Walt’s Tips For Effective Communication with Non-Native Speakers.


First of all, remember that your goal is communication and comprehension. You want to impart information, but more importantly, you want your audience to understand the information so they can apply it to their lives, and take whatever actions are necessary. Your goal is not to show how intelligent or clever you are, and it is not to win a vocabulary contest.


The best way to achieve your goal is to keep things simple. No one will ever fault you for doing this. Even English major PhDs will appreciate simplicity in learning a new concept. By choosing simple words, you’re not being condescending, you’re being courteous and considerate.

As an example, since I referred to last week’s immigration forum, I would use words like "go to and from" or "traveling to or through" rather than, say, "transiting," or “embarkation.” That’s immigration-speak, not everyday language taught in English 101. Keep it simple. You lose nothing, and you gain understanding.


Another way to keep things simple is to avoid tangents, parentheses, caveats and multiple conditionals in a single answer/sentence. Find ways to answer yes or no. I agree that immigration law is detailed. However, many questions can be answered with "Yes, if..." and "No, unless...." rather than a long and winding response with a series of if/then conditions.

BAD: “So, to answer your question, which, incidentally, only applies if you were an immigrant prior to 1985, when it was actually on the books as illegal, but then repealed by a Senator who was a dear friend of mine, you can, in fact—and this is mandated by law—do it, IF, and only if, you meet the necessary criteria, which was put in place during the Clinton Administration and passed in Congress by just two votes.”

All those parenthetical statements and caveats and tangents, and prior tos, and whereases show you’re knowledgeable, they prove you know the regulations, and that you know how to string an educated sentence together, but they totally lose and intimidate your audience. So you end up getting answers to issues you thought you explained correctly, but the reality is, it simply wasn’t simple.

GOOD: “Yes, if you have children who were born in the U.S.” or “Here are the seven situations this law applies to.”


This is one of my major peeves with public speakers. Whether they’re just lazy, inconsiderate or worse, showing off their newfound membership in a professional clique, many speakers use confusing and obscure acronyms that they themselves didn’t know or use before they took their job or role.

BAD:” "The DOD, along with my friends at DHS, prepared an RFP which..."

We’re dealing a lot with government officials from the military, homeland security, and immigration where the use of acronyms is a way of life and a foreign language unto itself. Think how confusing it is to a non-native speaker who has a hard enough time following REAL English words! Remember, all it takes is one unknown word to lose your audience.


The best way to get a message across is to tell a story. Describe a scene to make your point.

GOOD: "I had a friend who wanted to go to Japan. He got up that morning, grabbed his passport and went to the airport."


BAD: He wanted to zip over to Japan, and when he buzzed the airline, they didn’t tell him he needed a visa, because they thought he was a U.S. citizen. So he figured it was a done deal, and that everything was in the bag.


Make no assumptions about cause and effect, or the results and consequences of certain actions, or what you consider the logical or obvious conclusion to draw from a situation.

BAD: He went to the counter, handed over his passport, but there was no visa inside. So we all know what happened to him then!

(No, we don’t. That’s why we are here to listen to you: to learn.)


Everyone, especially non-native speakers, comprehends best when you speak in complete sentences and ideas. Don’t complete your sentences with shoulder shrugs, rolled eyes, raised eyebrows, or other body language, even though “everyone in the states understands what I mean.” Spell it out. GOOD: "So, because he did not have his visa, he was not allowed on the plane."


When dealing with non-native speakers, you will never be wronged for stating what you consider to be obvious. People will thank you for it. Using words like “therefore,” “what this means is,” and “in other words” is critical for establishing the connection between cause and effect.

GOOD: "What that means is: If you are a Jamaican citizen with a Jamaican passport, whenever you travel to Japan, you need to apply for a visa before you can get on the plane."


When you’re new to a language, short words may simply sound like incoherent noises. Just as the equivalent of “um” or “ah” might be mistaken by you for a word, in English, a short, but important word like "if" can simply be missed by someone new to the language. And, especially when explaining policy and procedures, that little word “if” is vital for full comprehension.


If you’ve ever attempted to learn Mandarin, then you might be familiar with the four tones (the same basic sound said with a rising tone, a falling tone, etc. has different meanings). The subtle differences among the four tones are often lost to us non-native Mandarin speakers who weren’t raised hearing the differences. Similarly, you may not realize that the difference between "can" and "can’t" seems subtle to non-English speakers and is often lost to those who didn’t grow up speaking and hearing English.

Therefore, stay away from contractions. Say "cannot" and "do not" instead of can’t and don’t. Just think how many misconceptions and rumors here on Saipan are caused by that one…especially when it comes to visa and immigration regulations!

BAD: "You can’t (heard as "can") travel to the U.S. with an umbrella permit."

GOOD: “You cannot travel to the U.S. with an umbrella permit.”
Even in the most ideal circumstances, public speaking and effective communicating can be a challenge. It’s hard enough to speak to a crowd of your peers who share your own language. Speaking to non-native speakers requires a few additional skills, increased sensitivity and special care. It requires being able to become your audience, to be able to understand your own language as well as how it is heard, how it is perceived and how it is spoken (or misspoken) by people who are experiencing it for the first time. Taking the time to practice these and other tips will make a world of difference in your future presentations! Best of success to all!

*nuff in Jamaican patois means “much” or “a lot of.” (Just taking care to explain any slang terms I might use.)

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Note: Ever wanted to direct your friends and family to a set of websites that said good things about Saipan? Do what I do: send them to!

Note: Fans and followers of the book, Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan may now find copies here on Saipan at Fu Dogs & Qi (pronounced chi), Saipan’s only Asian Antiques Store, located on the first floor of the Nauru Building (the “360 building”) in Susupe.

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Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!

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