Communicating Employability: the Role of Communicative Competence for Zimbabwean Highly Skilled Migrants in the UK

  • Roda Madziva
  • Simon McGrath
  • Juliet ThondhlanaEmail author


Skilled migration is an increasingly important topic for both policy and research internationally. OECD governments in particular are wrestling with tensions between their desire to use skilled migration to be on the winning side in the ‘global war for talent’ and their pandering to and/or attempts to outflank rising xenophobia. One aspect that has received relatively little attention is skilled migration from the African Commonwealth to the UK, a situation in which skilled migrants have relatively high levels of linguistic capital in the language of the host country. We focus here on the case of Zimbabwe. In spite of its popular image as a failed state, Zimbabwe has an exceptionally strong educational tradition and high levels of literacy and fluency in English. Drawing on 20 in-depth interviews of Zimbabwean highly skilled migrants, we explore the specific ways in which the communicative competences of these migrants with high formal levels of English operate in complex ways to shape their employability strategies and outcomes. We offer two main findings: first, that a dichotomy exists between their high level formal linguistic competence and their ability to communicate in less formal interactions, which challenges their employability, at least when they first move to the UK; and second, that they also lack, at least initially, the competence to narrativise their employability in ways that are culturally appropriate in England. Thus, to realise the full potential of their high levels of human capital, they need to learn how to communicate competently in a very different social and occupational milieu. Some have achieved this, but others continue to struggle.


Highly skilled migrants Employability Communicative competence Human capital Zimbabwe 


  1. Ashton, D., & Green, F. (1996). Education, training and the global economy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  2. Bachman, L. F. (1990). Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bauman, Z. (2007). Consuming life. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  4. Beardsmore, H. B. (1986). Bilingualism: basic principles (2nd ed.). Clevedon: Avon: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
  5. Becker, G. S. (1964). Human capital. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Benson-Rea, M., & Rawlinson, S. (2003). Highly skilled and business migrants: information processes and settlement outcomes. International Migration, 42, 59–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bevelander, P., & Veenman, J. (2004). Variation in perspective: the employment success of ethnic minority males in the Netherlands, 1988–2002. International Migration, 42, 36–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Blommaert, J. M. E. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Blommaert, J.M.E. (2014). “Sociolinguistics and English language studies.” In Handbook of English language studies. C. Leung and B. Street (Eds.), Abingdon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  10. Boni, A., & Walker, M. (Eds.). (2013). Human development and capabilities. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Brown, H. D., & Abeywickrama, P. (2010). Language assessment: principles and classroom practices (2nd ed.). New York: Pearson Longman.Google Scholar
  12. Brown, P., & Hesketh, A. (2004). The mismanagement of talent. Oxford: University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Canagarajah, A. S. (2006). Changing communicative needs, revised assessment objectives: testing English as an international language. Language Assessment Quarterly, 3, 229–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Canagarajah, A. S. (2011). Codemeshing in academic writing: identifying teachable strategies of translanguaging. The Modern Language Journal, 95, 401–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Canagarajah, A. S. (2013). “Skilled migration and development: portable communicative resources for transnational work.” Multilingual Education, 3:8.
  16. Canale, M. (1983). From communicative competence to communicative language pedagogy. In J. C. Richards & R. W. Schmid (Eds.), Language and communication (pp. 2–27). London: Longman.Google Scholar
  17. Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguis, 1, 1–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Capps, R., McCabe, K. & Fix, M. (2011) New streams: black African migration to the United States. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.
  19. Carr, N. T. (2011). Designing and analyzing language tests. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Celce-Murcia, M., Dörnyei, Z., & Thurrell, S. (1995). Communicative competence: a pedagogically motivated model with content specifications. Issues in Applied Linguis, 6, 5–35.Google Scholar
  21. Chiswick, B. R., & Miller, P. W. (1995). The endogeneity between language and earnings: international analyses. Journal of Labor Economics, 13, 246–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Chiswick, B.R., & Miller, P.W. (2007). “The international transferability of immigrants’ human capital skills.” IZA Discussion Papers 2670, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA)Google Scholar
  23. Chiswick, B. R., Lee, Y. L., & Miller, P. W. (2006). Language skills and visa category. International Migration Review, 40, 419–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Chiwome, E., & Thondhlana, J. (1992). “Sociolinguistics and education: a survey concerning attitudes on the teaching of Shona through the media of Shona and English.” In Language and Society in Africa. Ed. R. K. Herbert. Cape Town, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press. 247–263.Google Scholar
  25. Clark, M., & Zukas, M. (2013). A Bourdieusian approach to understanding employability: becoming a ‘fish in water’. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 65, 208–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Clyne, M. (1994). Intercultural communication at work: cultural values in discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Coperias Aguilar, M.-J. (2008). Dealing with intercultural communicative competence. In E. S. Alcon & M. P. Safont Jorda (Eds.), Intercultural language use and language learning (pp. 59–78). Milton Keynes, England: Springer.Google Scholar
  28. Cui, X. (2012). Problematic Chinese-Australian social interactions at work. University of Melbourne, Melbourne Graduate School of EducationGoogle Scholar
  29. Dangarembga, T. (1988). Nervous conditions. London: The Women’s Press.Google Scholar
  30. Douglas, D. (2010). Understanding language testing. London: Hodder Education.Google Scholar
  31. Du Bois, W. (1903). “The talented tenth.”. In B. Washington, W. Du Bois, C. Chesnutt, W. Smith, H. Kealing, P. Dunbar, & T. Fortune (Eds.), The Negro problem. New York: James Patt and Co.Google Scholar
  32. Foster, P. (1965a). Education and social change in Ghana. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  33. Foster, P. (1965b). “The vocational school fallacy in development planning.”. In C. Anderson & M. Bowman (Eds.), Education and economic development. Chicago: Aldine.Google Scholar
  34. Friedberg, R. M. (2000). You can’t take it with you? Immigrant assimilation and the portability of human capital. Journal of Labor Economics, 18, 221–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Fulcher, G. (2010). Practical language testing. London: Hodder Education.Google Scholar
  36. Gazier, B. (1998). Employability: definitions and trends. In B. Gazier (Ed.), Employability: concepts and policies. Berlin: European Employment Observatory.Google Scholar
  37. Grace, G. (1995). School leadership. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  38. Grenier, G., & Vaillancourt, F. (1983). An economic perspective on learning a second language. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 6, 471–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Gudykunst, W. B., & Kim, Y. Y. (1997). Communicating with strangers: an approach to intercultural communication. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  40. Harvey, W. S. (2008). British and Indian expatriate scientists finding jobs in Boston. Global Networks, 8, 453–473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hawthorne, L., & Burrell, R. (1997). Immigrants and the professions in Australia. Melbourne: Monarsh University. 71.Google Scholar
  42. Henderson, A., Trlin, A., & Watts, N. (2001). “Squandered skills? The employment problems of skilled Chinese immigrants in New Zealand.”. In R. Starrs (Ed.), Asian nationalisms in an age of globalisation (pp. 106–123). Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.Google Scholar
  43. Hillage, J., & Pollard, E. (1998). Employability: developing a framework for policy analysis. In Research Brief 85. London: Department for Education and Employment.Google Scholar
  44. Holmes, J. (2005). When small talk is a big deal: sociolinguistic challenges in the workplace. In M. H. Long (Ed.), Second language needs analysis (pp. 344–372). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Holmes, J., Riddiford, N., & Lung, J. (2009). “Talk at work: interactional challenges for immigrants.”. In V. K. Bhatia, W. Cheng, & B. Du-Babcock (Eds.), Language for professional communication: research, practice and training (pp. 215–234). Hong Kong, China: City University of Hong Kong.Google Scholar
  46. Hymes, D. (2001). “On communicative competence.”. In A. Duranti (Ed.), Linguistic anthropology. A reader (pp. 55–73). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.Google Scholar
  47. Kachru, B. B. (1981). The pragmatics of non-native varieties of English. In L. Smith (Ed.), English for cross-cultural communication (pp. 15–39). London: Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Kramsch, C. (2006). From communicative competence to symbolic competence. Modern Language Journal, 90, 249–252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Kramsch, C. (2008). Ecological perspectives on foreign language education. Language Teaching, 41, 389–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Li, Z. (2013). A critical account of employability construction through the eyes of Chinese postgraduate students in the UK. Journal of Education and Work, 26, 473–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Makalela, L. (2007). Nativization of English among Bantu language speakers in South Africa. Issues in Applied Linguis, 15, 129–147.Google Scholar
  52. Makoni, S., & Makoni, B. (2009). “English and education in Anglophone Africa: historical and current realities.”. In M. Wong & S. Canagarajah (Eds.), Christian and critical English language educators in dialogue: pedagogical and ethical dilemmas (pp. 106–119). Routledge: Taylor and Francis.Google Scholar
  53. Makoni, B., and Makoni, S. (in press). “English as a postcolonial language in Africa.” In handbook of English as a foreign language. de Bot, K., K. Schrader, and D. Wolff. (Eds.) Routledge, Taylor, and Francis.Google Scholar
  54. McGrath, S. A. (2004). Shifting understandings of skills in South Africa. Cape Town: HSRC PressGoogle Scholar
  55. McQuaid, R. W., & Lindsay, C. (2005). The concept of employability. Urban Studies, 42, 197–219Google Scholar
  56. Michaels, E., Handfield-Jones, H., & Axelrod, E. (2001). The war for talent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.Google Scholar
  57. Millet, J. (2003). What is culture.
  58. Negash, N. (2011). English language in Africa: an impediment or a contributor to development?”. In H. Coleman (Ed.), Dreams and realities: developing countries and the English language. London: British Council. Scholar
  59. Pandharipande, R. (1987). On nativization of English. World Englishes, 6, 149–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Peck, J., & Theodore, N. (2000). “Beyond employability”. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 24, 729–749.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Pennycook, A. (2007). Global Englishes and transcultural flows. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  62. Rampton, B. (2006). Language in late modernity: interaction in an urban school. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Ranger, T. (1995). Are we not also men? Oxford: James Currey.Google Scholar
  64. Sanders, J. M., & Nee, V. (1996). Immigrant self-employment: the family as social capital and the value of human capital. American Sociological Review, 61, 231–249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Schellekens, P. (2001). English Language as a barrier to employment, training and education. London: DfEE.Google Scholar
  66. Sennett, R. (1999). The corrosion of character. London: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  67. Sharifian, F. (2013). “Globalisation and developing metacultural competence in learning English as an international language.” Multilingual Education, 3, 7.
  68. Spencer-Oatey, H., & Franklin, P. (2009). Intercultural interaction: a multidisciplinary approach to intercultural communication. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Summers, C. (2002). “Colonial lessons: Africans’ education in Southern Rhodesia 1918–1940.” Oxford, UK: James Currey. Routledge Research Education in Anglophone Africa, 119Google Scholar
  70. Thondhlana, J. (2000). Contrastive rhetoric in Shona and English argumentative essays. Harare: University of Zimbabwe PublicationsGoogle Scholar
  71. Trudell, B. (2005). Language choice, education and community identity. International Journal for Academic Development, 25, 237–251.Google Scholar
  72. Van Ek, J. A. (1986). “Objectives of foreign language learning.” Scope 1. Strasbourg: Council of Europe, Publications SectionGoogle Scholar
  73. Van Tubergen, F., & Kalmijn, M. (2009). A dynamic approach to the determinants of immigrants language proficiency: the United States, 1980–2000. International Migration Review, 43, 519–543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Zeng, Z., & Xie, Y. (2004). Asian-Americans. Earnings disadvantage re-examined: the role of place of education. American Journal of Sociology, 109, 1075–1108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Zubin, A. (2007). Geographical migration, psychological adjustment and reformation of professional identity. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 5, 239–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roda Madziva
    • 1
  • Simon McGrath
    • 2
  • Juliet Thondhlana
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.School of SociologyUniversity of NottinghamNottinghamUK
  2. 2.School of EducationUniversity of Nottingham, Jubilee CampusNottinghamUK

Personalised recommendations