Never in my classroom is the problem the native speaker?

Let me return to the flummoxedness of my first few weeks teaching in 2013.

Apologies to those of you who are not so techy minded, but it may interest you all the same.

Normally if we are to believe linguistic theory, as communicators we accommodate our partners in order to aid comprehension. Unless we are an age old Scottish footie managers who has fans stretching the globe, but probably half of which still do not understand us.

If you received this line in an email and were techie minded, would you understand it?

“Unfortunately there might be an over-assumption in regards to the data retention and attrition during the data centre conglomeration and data compression”.

It was sent by a non-native speaker to a native Brit. The response of the latter was ” I am sorry I do not  exactly know what you mean”.


During the lesson I exclaimed that I did know what was meant, and would so in context. Now this could be the issue that often as ESL/EFL trainers we become accustomed to interpreting meaning from unusual or complexly formed sentences.

The emails did go back and forth between the non native sender and native recipient, as the former was using in-house jargon, and the latter did not clearly state what he did not quite understand.

I pointed out that the company should consider using over and under estimation, instead of assumption if they wanted to avoid this happening again. And under assumption sounded odd  even to my ear. However personally I did not think it was completely incomprehensible.

What about you?

And this does highlight something I have noticed in both English and German, and that is that it is assumed the speaker will adjust their lingo to the interlocutor. What Scott Thornbury points out well in his blog on accommodation. However in some cases the native speaker does not adjust their communication or widen their scope for interpretation. And hence where a problem can lie.

Likewise the minefield that companies do not realise they may fall into when working with new partners, but using in-house jargon familiar to their previous partners.

Have you had any similar experiences?

Disclaimer: In no way does the author imply that theLingGuy produces text without errors or speak proper, always comprehensible English. Spelling mistakes, and complete comprehensibility by everyone is not always a given.




  • Marco

    First off I have to out myself as a tech-head and a non-native speaker.

    Stew, I don’t even think it’s about in-house jargon. I have often seen this issue and it happened to myself, still have to fight with it.

    Don’t exactly know which psychological effect is behind but if you, as a non-native, are new to technical writing you probably feel like you want to do everything 100% right. That’s why you tend to catch for some unusual and preferably complex words in the belief that can’t be wrong. Apparently, you try to learn some new words using diversified terms etc.
    BTW: I mean technical writing in every manner like sending notes to partners, publishing blog posts, newsletters, writing tech documentations etc.

    Let me clearly state that it doesn’t work like this 🙂

    If you’re in technical writing, a non-native speaker and willing to learn:
    – better use terms that you have heard before from a native speaker. Looking up new words in a dictionary will definitely lead you astray.
    – hence, use only phrases that you know from inside out.
    – especially if your addressees are non-native speakers as well, go KISS (keep it stupid simple): use simple terms that everybody might know and create your sentences as short as possible

    Maybe this topic is related to “international English” 😉

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