Online Workplace Integration Language Resources (OWLS)

The purpose of this project is to develop online resources to support the teaching and learning of workplace integration language skills for newcomers. The project will create a set of resources that can be used flexibly to support teacher-led and learner self-study of pragmatic language expressions within workplace contexts. Video and audio resources will support newcomers to be aware of the gap between language and behavior that is perceived as appropriate and will help them learn to adjust their own language and behavior to be perceived as acceptable to their Canadian co-workers and supervisors. A guide to teaching workplace-appropriate language usage (pragmatics) for English-as-a-Second language instructors will also be developed.

Need Addressed: Newcomers require a range of competencies to successfully adapt to Canadian ideas of employability, including language, culture, employment-based skills and the ability to navigate the formal and informal aspects of the Canadian workplace. In addition to the knowledge, skills and abilities required to succeed, newcomers need to navigate the perceptions of their Canadian born co-workers and supervisors as to how well they are "fitting in." To be perceived by their workplace peers as proficient users of the English language and competent workers, they need to develop several linguistic competencies: syntactic, semantic, pragmatic and strategic. English-as-a-Second language speakers cannot develop pragmatic competencies without understanding the cultural context in which everyday language use occurs. Although we are most aware of cultural assumptions regarding communicative competence, when those assumptions are not met, people within a culture tend to share assumptions about accepted ways to, for example, interrupt someone who is higher status, ways to say no and to disagree and how to negotiate with others to achieve agreement while maintaining good relations throughout the process. This implicit knowledge is not necessarily shared by people coming from other cultures who may have learned different assumptions of how to communicate appropriately. Acceptable unwritten rules for communication vary across cultures.

Pragmatics is the ability to factor in the context, the participants' age, gender, roles and status and adjust word choices, tone and register accordingly (Garcia, 2004). The demand for pragmatic language resources arises from the challenges encountered by newcomers to obtain and maintain employment in Alberta workplaces. To be perceived as fluent, language users require reasonable mastery of language content, an ability to listen to and speak pragmatic utterances and judgment on how and when to use language appropriately within a context. Unlike content errors, errors in pragmatic speech often lead to judgements about a speaker's personality or moral character (Vasquez & Sharpless, 2009) and may lead listeners to negatively judge the speaker's overall competence in the workplace.

In the Centre's work with Alberta businesses with multicultural workforces, human resource and workforce managers have requested training services to address communication issues, in order to decrease conflicts in the workplace, to improve productivity, decrease time wasted due to poor communication and to improve safety compliance.
Project Funder: Alberta Employment and Immigration
Key Project Activities:
  1. Design, development and production of video, audio, web resources and user guide.
  2. Evaluation of resources with target audience.
  3. Consultation with project advisory committee.
  4. Publication of the resources on the NorQuest Centre for Excellence in Intercultural Education website.
  5. Development of a workshop to share resources and how to incorporate them into teaching practice for ESL instructors.
  6. Dissemination of resources through workshops to approximately 200 participants.
  7. Dissemination of resources and project results to TESL Canada, ATESL and SIETAR conferences.
Project Time Frame: October 2009 - June 2011
Target Audience: English as a Second Language instructors, internationally educated professionals, human resource and workplace managers of multicultural teams.
Number of People Involved in Project: 224 people including:
  • 5 Project team members
  • 21 Participants in development of resources
  • 11 Project advisory committee members
  • 187 Participants in resource pilots
Lessons Learned: What did we find from researcher evaluation results?
As part of the evaluation of project resources, the project team held pilot language and intercultural workshops in nine ESL classes (CLB range 4-7), three client companies for human resource representatives and training specialists, and one videoconference site with an English in the Workplace class (CLB 7). Feedback was collected on the benefits of the OWLS materials for teaching and learning pragmatics and cultural competence. Some of our key findings are:
  • 85% of ESL learners, Teachers, human resource trainers agree that pragmatics is critical for success in the workplace and is also very difficult to learn without instruction.
  • 90% of participants agreed that the OWLS resources are a practical way to study language and culture.
  • 83% agreed that the OWLS website materials are a useful way to study pragmatics
  • 81% agreed that the OWLS website is a useful tool to study cultural differences in behaviour
  • 100% of teachers and trainers agreed that the OWLS website is a useful way to notice cultural differences in pragmatics
  • 100% of teachers and trainers would recommend the OWLS resource to other teachers and trainers.
What did we learn from the process?
There were a number of important discoveries in the process of creating the OWLS video resources for language and culture. Some of the most critical lessons learned that contributed to the overall success of this project are as follows:
  1. Script authenticity: Each script was evaluated in three draft phases to ensure authentic representation of ethno-cultural behavioural tendencies. The ethno-cultural groups represented by characters in the videos were consulted at each draft phase for their input. These were all volunteer hours given by former NorQuest students or internationally-educated professionals from NorQuest client companies.
  2. Evidenced-based design: There were both formative and summative assessments of the OWLS resources in three stages: pre-development, during and post-development. In pre-development, an initial advisory committee of stakeholders in industry (human resource and training representatives) ESL materials developers and language instructors were consulted to outline their challenges of language and culture related to workplace integration. All of the speech acts in the Language Study tables were rank ordered by language teachers at the local ATESL meeting in Edmonton and by our advisory committee. Throughout the development process, language teachers and intercultural trainers were asked to contribute their pedagogical expertise to help make the resources a practical learning tool. Teachers and materials developers who attended a presentation at the Alberta Teachers of English as a Second Language (ATESL) conference provided early feedback on the initial development of the resources. Teachers at NorQuest College were invited to project meetings to get their opinions of recent drafts of the Language Study Tables. The final product was evaluated, as outlined above, in client companies, and ESL/EWP classrooms for feedback on practicality and pedagogical effectiveness of the final product.
  3. Professional to Amateur Actor Mentorship: The OWLS video production involved both professional actors and amateurs. The amateurs were recruited from the student body of the ESL learners at NorQuest College and from client companies. Without the support of the professional actors and the establishing of close working relationships in a relatively short time, the final product would not have been as successful.
Future (Next steps): The number of yearly immigrants to Canada reached an all time high in 2010. In order to build effective multicultural workplaces, there is a need to notice important similarities and differences in orientations to communication in the workplace. Pragmatics materials relevant to the Canadian context, however, are in scarce supply. The OWLS resources are a critical departure point for the development of such resources for not only pragmatic but also intercultural competence development in the workplace. They were created on a strong foundation of both intercultural and second language acquisition theory. We hope that this project and the website materials will be a springboard to future materials development in the field of pragmatics in Canada. We are well aware, however, that awareness is only the first step and that further opportunities to practice and reflect are essential in building both pragmatic and intercultural competence. We encourage all teachers and trainers to use these resources and build on them into the future. The project team extends immense gratitude to Alberta Employment and Immigration for encouraging this important innovation.
Project Team: Erin Waugh, Kerry Louw, Katherine Rankin, Corey Stroeder, Cheryl Whitelaw

For More Information Contact: 1-780-644-6770 or email


Building Effective Multicultural Workplaces*

For the Office
There are five videos for the office context. The first is of a multicultural team in a boardroom meeting that highlights a number of cultural orientations and workplace values (see facilitator guide for descriptions). The next four depict short interactions between characters who are navigating cultural differences to make sense of the boardroom meeting. Topics highlighted are:

  • Leading multicultural teams
  • Intercultural communication
  • Meeting work deadlines
  • Following agendas
  • Communicating with clients

For Industry
There are also five videos for the industry context. The first is of a tailgate meeting of a multicultural team. The remaining four break down some challenges of multicultural work teams related to safety, showing initiative and speaking up on the job (download facilitator guide for descriptions). Topics highlighted are:

  • Safety
  • Showing initiative
  • Speaking up
  • Leading multicultural work teams
  • Getting the job done on time

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Language Study Tables

The Language Study Tables were developed as a tool to help learners build their understanding of pragmatic competence (soft skills) in the Canadian workplace. These are useful and practical resources for ESL teachers and learners. This section may also be valuable to large company representatives or small business leaders who are looking for language resources to recommend to their international employees. There are a total of ten tables divided into the following speech acts:

  • Study Table 1: Idioms
  • Study Table 2: Requesting
  • Study Table 3: Responding to a Request
  • Study Table 4: Giving Feedback
  • Study Table 5: Disagreeing
  • Study Table 6: Relating to Others
  • Study Table 7: Expressing Urgency
  • Study Table 8: Asking for Support
  • Study Table 9: Complaining
  • Study Table 10: Giving and Opinion

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Something's Up! Intercultural Resources

Ten intercultural miscommunications between characters have been taken out of the full videos and broken down into the various stages of the Something's up! Cycle (see Facilitator Guide). Learners are guided through the Something's Up! Cycle with multiple-choice or true/false questions. Facilitators can use this resource to give participants the opportunity to practice using a tool for making sense of intercultural misunderstandings.

  • Example 1: The Hockey Pool
  • Example 2: Meeting Deadlines
  • Example 3: Keeping the Client
  • Example 4: Following the Agenda
  • Example 5: Comparing Cultures
  • Example 6: Leaving Work Early
  • Example 7: Working Safely
  • Example 8: Driving Conditions
  • Example 9: Going to Site C
  • Example 10: Coming to the Meeting

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Facilitator Guide

The Facilitator Guide helps instructors use the videos effectively in workplace training contexts or in the ESL classroom. The guide outlines our Centre's language and intercultural training methods and how to break down the videos as a facilitator.

Download resource (1.8M pdf)

Pilot Workshop - Trainers

The focus of this workshop was to introduce the resources to human resource representatives, trainers and training specialists. Three workshops of this kind were delivered to a total of 35 participants.

Download resource (633K pdf)

Pilot Workshop - ESL Teachers and Students

This focus of this workshop was to introduce the resources to students and teachers and get feedback on usefulness and practicality. A total of nine ESL classes and one English in the Workplace (EWP) class participated. The EWP class was delivered via videoconference to Grande Prairie. Over 170 students and teachers participated.

Download resource (500K pdf)

ATESL Presentation

The goal of this presentation was to introduce the project focus and acquire feedback on the early development of the resources. Over 40 participants attended and we again thank them for their invaluable feedback on the resources during their early development.

Download resource (297K pdf)

TESL Canada Presentation

The goal of this presentation was to present project results and resources to the national ESL instructor audience. Over 50 teachers and materials developers attended.

Download resource (616K pdf)

*Note: In order to play these videos, you will need to meet the following technical requirements:

  • Flash Player 10
  • High speed Internet connection
  • Internet Explorer 7 / Firefox 3.5 / Chrome 9 / Safari