Language in the Workplace – Reasons for miscommunication between students and teachers


Picture 1: Classroom silhouette from Openclipart, by GDJ

You are an explorer and you have a curious mind. You might have seen many different places in this world. But there is this one really special place, you just have to go back to almost every day: your classroom. A lot of the things you know, you got from there. And a lot of your future knowledge you will probably get from there, too. Most of the time, your classroom is a nice space where you meet your friends, have fun and discover a bunch of new things. But there might be some moments when you feel like you are treated unfair. There is one very significant person in your life who might be the cause for this – but also the cure. Your teacher has a lot of responsibility for you. He or she does not only take a big part in your education, but also in your personal development. Although, or rather, because of this, miscommunication is just waiting around the corner.

Language in the classroom

As you already understood thanks to this brief introduction, in this article we will approach the use of language in what is actually your daily “workplace”: the classroom. Applied linguists are interested in how people communicate at their workplace, be it workers in a factory, employees of a large corporation or doctors and patients in a hospital – or teachers and students in the classroom. We will particularly focus on the last point and how it can sometimes be a problem in the learning process if communication does not take place properly. There are various reasons that account for the differences between what students hear and what teachers actually say.

But before talking about the different situations of miscommunication that could occur in the classroom setting, it is important to first remind you of a thing that we sometimes tend to forget. Even if it seems obvious, all the information that you get from your teacher is mainly given via the medium of language, written or oral. It is therefore the central element that could be the source of a potential misunderstanding between you and your teachers. Just before moving on to some general examples, we would like to give you two concrete situations that clearly show the importance of the communicative role of the teacher in the classroom:

  1. Just imagine a typical day in a classroom in let’s say … Cologne. All the pupils who are sitting there are not especially from Cologne itself. Some are maybe from the suburbs of the city, some from the countryside of the region, and others might have a migration background with German as their second or third language. They do not share the same culture and language as their classmates and their teacher, which might be a source of trouble when communicating because of language comprehension or production. Plus, the classroom is a space where a lot of ideas are exchanged, either between pupils or between pupils and teachers. Wallace E. Lambert wrote a great paper about the influence of language and culture as factors in learning and education. According to him, language and culture have a great influence on cognitive processes. To him, it makes perfectly sense that students

    Picture 2: Diverse student group work from Openclipart, by espertus

    who have a different cultural or linguistic background also think differently. Therefore, it is important for teachers to act like “referees” in the middle of all those ideas and to be flexible and open-minded towards other cultures.

  1. The Social Science & Medicine journal published a study showing that stress is contagious. Stressed teachers influence their students in a bad way, making it harder for them to concentrate, being more anxious before going to class, and even causing sickness. On the other hand, teachers who are relaxed and easygoing tend to project this attitude on their pupils. This has therefore clear consequences on the quality of the learning environment.

Miscommunication in the classroom

The following expressions are kind of “fixed” and are used to make you reflect on the subject you just discovered. The way teachers present the information can cause a problem: that is if the task you are asked to perform is not well-defined by the teacher. Miscommunication in the classroom is often due to unintended double-speak. This happens when teachers utter phrases that can be understood one way or another. We want to show you some examples for double-speak introduced by Dr. Simpllico who made his observations on keywords and sentences that teachers use on an everyday basis:


  What teachers mean What students understand Problems with this
“Okay” Did you understand what we were talking about? Do you agree with what I said? Teachers just move on to the next topic thinking their students understood what they just said. In reality, some student may not have understood and fall behind in their class work and knowledge.
“This is important” This is important to me so you will probably get tested on it. Okay this is important, but I don’t really understand what that means for me. Students don’t understand why a certain topic is important to their teacher. They lack the importance of the topic and fail studying for it. Even worse, they focus their energies on far less important topics.
“You need to…” You need to do this, because it is important and I will take a close look at your performance in this area. I see the need for you to do this. I don’t see the need for me to do this. Students cannot refer to what their teacher want since they often don’t see the need to do things they did not want to do in the first place.
“Are there any questions?” I now give you the time to reflect on what we just learned and the opportunity to ask me questions. Alright. We are done with this topic. Let’s move attention to the next ones. Students often take this question as a signal for attention shifting. They see it as the signal for the ending of one question and the beginning of another. Because they were pretty much trained on this behavior, they do not even think about asking insightful question.

Those were some very prominent examples of student-teacher communication gone wrong. This could easily be avoided if the teacher made clearer utterances. Teachers have the power to change your world just by introducing different terms to you that might mean the same in general but imply different things in reality. In an article on Faculty Focus, Dr. Maryellen Weimer claims that sometimes even single words can make a difference. Did you ever think about why we say that `teachers give grades´ instead of `students earning grades´, even though this would be way truer? Or why teachers directly talk about `having papers to correct´ as if it is given fact that they will find mistakes? The messages implied in those small words have a big influence on your subconscious mind and form the way you see the world. Therefore Dr. Weimer states that they influence your thoughts and actions.

Now it is your turn: Play an active communicator role

However, always remember to see the positive side of the coin: You have as much a voice as your teacher does and your communication skills can have a big impact on your success in class. School is at first a common ground where you can share your ideas and thoughts and test your communication skills. Ifasa Iftikat offers on some really helpful tips to students that you should keep I mind:


Picture 3: Checklist from Openclipart, by DaKo

  1. Do not be afraid and say what you REALLY REALLY mean.
  2. Listen very carefully in order to avoid missing out on important information and to develop the right response.
  3. Ask questions! If you are only assuming something, this might lead to miscommunication.
  4. Try to express yourself short and on point.
  5. Before talking, ask yourself what you want to achieve with this.
  6. If you want to find out whether your communication is working or not, ask your pals and teachers. Productive  feedback is the best way to improve yourself.

Yes, teachers can be weird – just like you :). You have to help each other in order to build up this thing we keep talking about: Great communication! The good thing about misunderstanding is that you can talk about them openly. Raise your voice and keep in mind that teachers cannot always read your thoughts and the other way around: remind your teachers from time to time that you cannot read their thoughts either! So one last time: Talk, talk, talk. And most important:

Be confident about your communication skills. You have them! Find YOUR own way of communicating!

By Alexandra & Katharina




Ifitkar, Ifaza (2013). 8 Tips to improve your Communication skills. From: (retrieved: 06.02.2017)

Lambert, Wallace E. (1990). Culture and Language as Factors in Learning and Education. In: Mallea, J. & Young, J. (Eds.). Cultural diversity and Canadian Education. (pp. 233-264). Ottawa: Carelton University Press.

Sifferlin, Alexandra (2016). Stress is Contagious in the Classroom. From: (retrieved: 06.02.2017)

Simplico, Joseph (2007). Miscommunication in the classroom: What teachers say and what students really hear. In: Educating the 21st Century Student (2007). Bloomington: AuthorHouse.

Weimer, Maryellen (2015). The Power of Language to Influence Thought and Action. From: (retrieved: 06.02.2017)


Featured Images

Picture 1: Classroom silhouette. From: (retrieved: 06.02.2017)

Picture 2: Diverse student group work. From: (retrieved: 06.02.2017)

Picture 3: Checklist. From: (retrieved: 06.02.2017)



We are Alexandra and Katharina and guess what: We are really into language <3 We chose language in the classroom as a topic because we feel like this is really ABOUT YOU and can help you a lot to improve your daily communications with you teachers. When we were in school, we often felt misunderstood. Therefore we hope you can take something personally for you from here. Enjoy! :)

1 Response

  1. PS says:

    Nice post, really down-to-earth and approachable. I especially found the part on double-speak interesting (and for a moment I was sure that “Dr. Simpllico” was a pseudonym given the context), which points to the dangers of ambiguity in language use, especially in professional settings.
    I was wondering, though: As language is always (potentially) ambiguous, what can we do to improve this? Should there be a “simplified teachers’ English” similar to what they do with Simplified Technical English in aviation, ideally reducing the potential for miscommunication? Or would (a lot of) meta-discourse help, where teachers explicitly discuss what they mean when they use certain expressions with their classes? Just curious what you think…

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