Pragmatic Patterns for Business: Professional Language Competencies

In Alberta, the demand for skilled professionals is predicted to exceed the supply within 2 to 5 years. The Alliance of Sector Councils notes that Canada’s reliance on internationally trained workers is increasing. It predicts that 100% of net labour force growth by the end of this decade will be sourced by immigrants. We need to improve our ability to retain them. Current estimates indicate that Canada loses approximately 30% of its new and highly skilled immigrants because we are unable to integrate them into the economy and into our communities (Statistics Canada).

For many internationally educated professionals (IEPs) with documented credentials and experience in their countries of origin, one of the barriers to retention and promotion is their “soft skills” including their professional communication skills, their ability to work effectively with others, and their ability to learn continuously. In a Canadian workplace context, an IEP may find the communication skills and workplace behaviors familiar to them do not produce the results they intend in Canada, and others may perceive them as not contributing positively to team or company goals.

Without understanding the unwritten rules of pragmatic communication patterns, IEPs may not be able to identify how and why their actions in a team are unsuccessful. They are also less likely to be asked to lead teams and gain the experience in a Canadian context that supports upward mobility within a company.

This gap in competence is often identified as a gap in language proficiency and contributes to the under-employment of skilled immigrants. In 2008, more immigrant workers (42%) aged 25 to 54 were overqualified for their work compared to 28% of Canadian born workers. Regardless of period of landing, immigrants had higher shares of over-qualification (Statistics Canada).

This project created a research-based approach to provide English in the Workplace instructors and corporate trainers with made-in-Canada resources to enhance professional language proficiencies within current work environments. These resources support greater integration for immigrant professionals (Canadian Language Benchmarks 6+) in the workplace and in leadership roles within professional fields.

Lessons learned 

Collections of pragmatic speech acts exist in other English speaking countries (e.g. Australia, U.K., United States) but little exists in a Canadian cultural and societal context. Using prepared discourse completion tasks the project team collected 200 samples of speech acts to analyze to create the patterns and to select appropriate samples to use for instruction. Samples selected for use in the final resource met technical quality standards based on professional audio production and editing (e.g. lack of background noise), demonstrated use of some or all of the pragmatic pattern within the speech act, demonstration of a range of the Canadian examples including gender, age and instructional use. Following this selection process, a total of 51 audio recordings were included in the project, distributed across the five speech acts used to demonstrate pragmatic communication

Collecting data through interviews with leaders provided an additional four audio podcast listening activities. The interviews are unscripted and have been altered only to remove names of companies or individuals. In some cases, this means the interview was transcribed and re-recorded.

Given the lack of existing pragmatic instructional resources within a Canadian context, this opportunity to collect and analyze language samples to generate the pragmatic pattern resource and lesson plans was important to situate these resources in current Canadian workplace contexts. With these resources now in place, it will be easier to build further resources to increase the number of speech acts, to increase the number of audio samples and to increase the kinds of learning activities that support pragmatic language learning in the English as an Additional Language classroom.


Other project information
Project time frame April 2012 – March 2014
Project team
  • Erin Waugh
  • Yuji Abe
  • Cheryl Whitelaw
  • Kerry Louw
Project sponsors

Alberta Human Services and Citizenship and Immigration Canada

Key project activities
  • Research speech act components for Canadian pragmatic speech patterns related to essential communication strategies, including managing time and stress (e.g. speech acts such as interrupting); and giving feedback (e.g. speech acts such as clarifying and identifying and resolving errors). Research included recording of Canadian pragmatic speech patterns as they occur in Canadian workplaces.
  • Develop pragmatic speech act pattern resources to provide an entry level curriculum and teaching resource for professional language communication.  Develop lesson plans linked to audio podcasts of the speech acts;
  • Review of pragmatic speech act patterns lesson plan with a cross-Canada committee including representatives from language instruction specialists and immigrant service providers engaged with work placement and workplace mentoring services;
  • Develop lesson plans illustrating how to use the pragmatic speech patterns in English in the Workplace instruction.
  • Pilot the lesson plans with approximately 100 internationally educated professionals to evaluate gains in professional language competencies related to the pragmatic speech acts using discourse completion tasks. 
  • Dissemination of results through conference presentations, workshops and webinars.
Target audience
  • EAL Instructors (English as an Additional Language instructors)
  • EAL Learners (English as an Additional Language learners/ Internationally educated professionals)
Number of people involved in project

365 people including: 

  • 4 Project team members
  • 7 Collaborators in resource development
  • 9 Reviewers from across Canada
  • 49 Participants in data Collection
  • 50 Participants in workshops
  • 102 Participants in pilot lessons
  • 144 Participants in conference sessions