Tuesday, 03 October 2017 02:34

Communicating in a New Country

By: Mona Mashhadi Rajabi in Tehran, Iran

Communication is more than understanding the words.

I was always aware of language barriers when I decided to move to Canada. But I didn’t know that this would go beyond an understanding of words and sentences. 

It took me a few months to get to this point, after a few odd experiences along the way. I will explain two of them for you. 

Animation film that opened my eyes

I was a student in Ottawa and some of my courses were project-based. There were four students in each group for the econometrics project. The deadline for the project was approaching, but we were stuck. The central problem in the project could not be solved, and the more we tried, the less progress we seemed to make. 

One day, as we were reading related articles and brainstorming, Gen, a Canadian-born student on my team, said: “We should call Thing 1 and Thing 2 to solve this problem.” Her reference did not make sense to me, but everyone else burst into laughter. 

I showed no reaction. I didn’t understand what was going on and didn’t know how to respond. Fortunately, no one realized that I didn’t get the point and we quickly got back to work. But the experience stayed in my mind. 

A few months later, while I was watching “The cat in the hat” animation film with my daughter, I discovered the origins of Gen’s reference. She was talking about two creatures in the cartoon that could solve unsolvable problems, the creatures that could help the “Cat” reach his goal.  

It was a fulfilling moment for me. But I also realized that this sort of thing could happen again.

For a moment I felt like an alien. The society that I chose to live in had so many unknown features rooted in its culture. I could face many obstacles because of that. I knew that I could meet people who might not understand my situation or may misunderstand my responses. I was missing out on a few things.

But it was my decision to move to Canada for my studies and it was in my interest to learn the culture and become a full part of the society around me. So, I had to work harder and not get disappointed. 

Lack of self-confidence to react in an emotional situation 

Melody, my daughter, was a happy, four-year old girl who started her junior kindergarten in Canada. 

Sara was one of Melody’s classmates. I knew her mother, Kate. We were living in the same neighborhood and we used to chat while we were waiting for the school bus. Kate was a photographer and was so nice to me. 

At the school’s New Year celebration day, Melody’s class came on the stage and started singing a song. Melody was loud and clear, she pronounced every word correctly and performed well with other children. 

Kate was standing beside me. She said: “Melody’s improvement in speaking English is impressive” and added that “Sara is so shy and never sings with the other children.” 

She was worried about her daughter and I understood her concerns as a mother, but I didn't feel confident enough to respond spontaneously.

She looked at me in anticipation and I finally put two words together. 

“Wow, really?” I said. It was the worst reaction that I could have made. 

At that moment another mother joined our conversation and said: “I am sure she will get better. Some children are shy at first, but they will become more social after a few years.” 

This was a better response. A kind of response that every mother expected and I had shown thousands of times before moving to Canada. 

After that day, I saw Kate many times and she did not mention my poor reaction to her concern. I explained my deficiencies in communication to her and I was surprised when I learned that it was not a new experience for Kate. She used to work with new immigrants and had faced strange situations before. 

She was the one who told me that the main barrier for an immigrant was not language but it was the communication skill. 

She added: “Communication is the skill that can be gained by living with people, talking with them and becoming friends with them. The kind of skill that can be gained over time.” 

Unique experience

After that day, she started talking about Canada’s culture, parenting and lifestyle. She tried to help me improve my skills and become an active person in conversations. She used to inform me about every cultural event in the city and playhouses in the neighbourhood.

Becoming friends with Kate was an impressive experience for me. This experience taught me to accept other people, to understand their situation and not to judge them based on one poor reaction. It taught me that in a developed society, every person matters and every person feels responsible for others. This responsibility was one of the keys to success. 

I remember Kate always telling me, “It is does not matter what you had, the important thing is what you gain. And the vital ingredient for success in this process is your willpower, hard work and ability not to give up or get disappointed.” 

And I chose to go on this way hoping that leads me to success. 

Although challenges of miscommunication did not end, I was more relaxed because I was not the only person facing communication challenges in Canada. I knew that there were many people in society who understood me, nonetheless.

This was the time that, I felt like home.

This piece is the second part of a mini-series within New Canadian Media’s Mentorship Program. The writer was mentored by Alireza Ahmadian.

Coming up next: Why I Am Still Considering Immigrating to Canada

Mona Mashhadi Rajabi holds a Master’s degree in economics. As a business journalist living in Tehran, she has written for publications such as Donyay-e-eghtesad, Tejarat-e-farda, Jahan-e-sanat and Ireconomy.

Published in Education

by Our National Correspondent

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have just put out results of a "psychological analysis" of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Announcing the results via a news release Nov. 8, the university said, “Contrary to what might be expected, grandiosity, simplistic language and rampant Twitter activity were statistical predictors of success in the Republican primaries. Although Trump’s bombastic communication style was shocking — even detestable to many viewers — our research suggests that this style helped him win the Republican nomination.”

The results were put out before the election results were clear following the end of polling in the U.S. Tuesday night. 

“Trump’s outrageous statements over the course of the campaign led many political pundits to underestimate his chances of success,” according to supervising author Delroy L. Paulhus, a personality psychology researcher and professor at UBC. Sara Ahmadian and Sara Azarshahi were co-authors of the study titled, “Explaining Trump via Communication Style: Grandiosity, Informality, and Dynamism”.

New Canadian Media interviewed one of the researchers, Sara Ahmadian, via an e-mail exchange.

Q: Does your study offer any insights into what sort of president Trump will be? Specifically, will he be a disruptor or a conciliator? Will he keep his promises, specifically as it relates to Muslim immigrants and building a wall with Mexico? Temperamentally, can he really be a "president for all Americans"? And, most importantly, are America's nuclear missile codes safe in his hands?

A: The qualities that got him elected may impair his ability to get things done. An effective leader must have self-control, ability to compromise and complex thought. You have to be able to listen and take criticism. These are not Trump's strongest points.  Previous research has shown that leaders who are able to use more complex rhetoric while in office are more effective leaders, but Trump is mostly known for his informal style.

Whether he can switch is a question that only time will answer. Previous research has also shown that presidents with styles similar to Trump's have had more scandals while in office. So, my prediction is that the Trump drama will continue on. Trump has also been known to flip-flop between ideas and policies.

We cannot determine if he will keep his promises. However, we have to keep in mind that many of the things that Trump wants to do will have to pass through the Senate. So, in conclusion, while I argue that he will not be the most effective leader, I think the nuclear missile codes will be safe. However, I cannot guarantee that he will not threaten to use them.

Q: In terms of psychological profile, what type would best describe Donald Trump? Does his profile match any other international leader?

A: I would say he has a highly narcissistic personality. I think that’s the one aspect that stands out the most considering his level of boasting. To the extent to which there are other international leaders like him, I would say the one person that stands out the most is the U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage. Interestingly enough, Farage is a big supporter of Trump.

Q: Does your study explain or provide any insights into why Trump was particularly critical of immigrants in the campaign?

A: Our study doesn’t directly address this question. But, indirectly, if we think about the social context that has allowed Trump to be successful then that might provide some information as to why immigrants are the target. Americans and most of the world are currently extremely fearful of immigrants, especially because of the world events such as war in Syria or even the simple problems such as financial instability. These types of events can lead to personality styles such as Trump. These styles need a scapegoat and at times it is the immigrant population that suffers. I mean examples [such as] Brexit, the rise of Norbert Hofer in Austria or Geert Wilders in The Netherlands.

Q: Any lessons we can draw in Canada? Can a similar candidate gain traction here?

A: I think we were very lucky in regards to the timing of our election. Although it has been said that we are more liberal than the U.S, it is important to point out that had a big terrorist event happened prior to the election in Canada, we might have chosen an individual more similar to Trump’s style. 

Q: What was it about this candidate that made him a good case study? 

A: Well, when Trump announced his bid to for the presidency, everyone thought it was a joke and it would be over in a month. In addition, all the experts said there is no way that Trump would continue or win the nomination. They all believed that Jeb Bush would be the nominee. Time and time again, it was revealed that all of these experts were wrong and that we have underestimated Trump. So the question became, how could we have been so wrong?

Furthermore, I work in a dark personality lab and Donald Trump is the greatest example of a narcissist.

Q: What does your study tell us about those who voted for Trump? Why didn't they see through his vacuous campaign?

A: What our study tells us is that we have been focusing too much on the content rather than Trump’s style, in explaining his success. If you look at interviews with Trump supporters, they usually say they don’t know what Trump’s policies are and they don’t care. What separates Trump and helped to make him a successful candidate was his style. These supporters can relate to Trump because of his informal style and they see him as a very successful individual thanks to how often Trump over-exaggerates and boasts about his accomplishments.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and updated following President-elect Donald Trump's win.

Published in Top Stories

by Heather Chetwynd (@voicetoword) in Toronto

Recent research shows that employers and newcomers value language and communication skills quite differently. Where 95 per cent of employers consider these skills to be very important, only 27 per cent of newcomers do. Thus, expectations regarding appropriate communication skills and their importance vary wildly between newcomers and their potential and actual employers. 

Internationally educated professionals often work in English-speaking environments for years with few language or communication issues. They come to Canada with the understanding that their professional experience is in demand and, consequently, they expect to get a job in their field quickly. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]If others find it difficult to understand your pronunciation, they may lose interest, get frustrated, misunderstand and, unfortunately, misjudge you.[/quote]

Only after endless applications and rejections, or years in a position with no promotion, do these professionals start to reflect on what may be holding them back

And what might that be? “There’s a requirement in the job which they are not able to fulfill due to a communication limitation,” says HR professional Nicole Stuart of Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP).

Step One: Identify the Communication Limitation

Your ability to participate comfortably in a conversation depends upon language and context. Understanding the culture, being familiar with the topic and concepts being discussed, knowing the idioms and vocabulary being used – all these factors make communication easier. But, if others find it difficult to understand your pronunciation, they may lose interest, get frustrated, misunderstand and, unfortunately, misjudge you.

The first step is to identify where the communication limitation is. If it’s related to accent, don’t expect to be told — managers are often reluctant to point this out. “At the end of the day, if your employee has a performance gap, it needs to be addressed,” says Stuart. “You can open the door and try to give the employee the chance to self-identify... A manager would never be coached to say, ‘You’re not clear in your communication because of your accent.’” 

Many managers are nervous about pointing out accent issues since this can often be interpreted as discriminatory — and in many cases, it might be. But often, concerns about how accents may inhibit easy communication are very real. According to Stuart, a better approach for a manager would be to say: “‘The delivery of that communication was unsuccessful. What do you think are the reasons?’ Get the employee to self-identify.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Most people will never be able to completely eliminate a foreign accent, and this should never be a goal. But with some time and commitment, it is possible to moderate your pronunciation enough so that you can be easily understood.[/quote]

It’s important to be open to accepting that your accent, if it’s very different from the dominant accent in the region, may be causing a communication gap or raising concerns about clarity. If you believe accent may be an issue for you, the next step is to explore the issues in more detail. 

Step Two: Look More Closely at the Problem

Let’s look at a few scenarios I have experienced with my accent clients:


Dev worked on his presentation all weekend. He was careful to fit in everything he wanted to cover, but time was tight and he would have to speak quickly. While he presented, his clients seemed distracted. At the end, they asked a few questions that he had already covered quite extensively. They said they would get back to him, but never did.

ISSUE: Speaking too fast with few pauses makes it difficult for listeners to accommodate for accent differences, since it’s hard to know where an idea starts and finishes, and there is no time to figure out any words that are pronounced differently.


Canada had just signed a free trade agreement with Colombia. When I asked my client what Canada exported to his country, he said, “Weed.”

ISSUE: “Weed” is slang for marijuana, but my client meant “wheat.” The difference between those two sounds is primarily in the vowel length. In “wheat,” the vowel length should be very short before the voiceless T. In “weed,” it is longer before the voiced D.


Ricardo had just received a document with some serious mistakes in the data calculations.  It had to be fixed before they could move on. He approached his manager with the page in hand and said, “This shit is all wrong.”

ISSUE: Ricardo meant “sheet.” The issue is the difference in the long and short “I” vowel. To pronounce the long vowel in “sheet,” we hold the tongue high at the back, sounding more like “iy” than “I.”


Most people will never be able to completely eliminate a foreign accent, and this should never be a goal. But with some time and commitment, it is possible to moderate your pronunciation enough so that you can be easily understood. The speed with which you improve and the degree of improvement depends on several factors: 

  • The quality of instruction
  • Your openness to change 
  • Your desire to improve
  • The time you spend in focused practice 
  • Your innate ability

Step Three: Get Self-Aware, and Then Get Going

So what is the next step? Be open to the possibility that clarity may be an issue — but explore other aspects as well. I had one client come to me, concerned about accent, when the issue was really that she talked too much, so people would cut her off. In another case, the client acted insecure by waving her hands around too much, when she simply needed to remain more still so others would see her as more authoritative. There are many reasons why people will disregard, question or interrupt you. Self-awareness is very important in all aspects of communication. 

If you have determined that your speech is unclear, decide to work on it. Classes can be a good starting point, and there is a lot of material available on the Internet. But because many people have difficulties with identifying the issues, refining your accent may require private instruction. Either way, you must be open to change and willing to put what you learn into practice. Moderating your accent may involve adjusting your public image, your self-perception and your personality. Be open, use the tools and be patient — your pronunciation can and will improve.

Heather Chetwynd has worked for over 30 years in the field of adult education and ESL. Holding a Master degree specializing in voice and adult education, she specializes in accent modification and culturally appropriate communication. She is Founder-Director of Voice to Word Consulting, which focuses on assisting non-Native speakers refine their English communication, and is professor at Sheridan College where she teaches Canadian Workplace Culture.

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Published in Commentary

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