Acronyms and Alphabet Soup

Some years ago, I was teaching an advanced level English class at the corporate office of a foreign bank.  The class was designed to help foreign-born financial professionals to become more comfortable with their American-born clients and to feel more integrated into American language and culture.  Naturally, pronunciation was a big part of the curriculum..  What I learned from this class and others following is the difficulty of understanding  many important things that are not typically covered in a typical English language curriculum.  This true story will explain:

It was break time and the ‘’students’’ and I were gathered around the espresso machine and chatting informally.  One of the lenders was commenting on the policies of the SEC, which he pronounced as “seck.”  He could not understand how the teacher (me), as a native speaker of English, did not understand his reference.  He kept repeating ‘’seck, seck, seck” with growing frustration.  Finally, in desperation, he repeated ‘’
seck’’ one last time, and added “ the Security and Exchange Commission” to further emphasize his reference.  Aha!!!  I could then explain to the student  that we say the letters, rather than make a word from the abbreviation.  My very intelligent student was confused….after all, we say NASA as a word, and OPEC, OSHA, COBRA, and ERISA. Why not SEC?  He was not very happy to hear ‘’because that’s the way we say it.”  

Think about acronyms and how confusing they can be to someone from another language or culture.  There is no reason why some are pronounced as a word and for some, we simply recite the letters (IRS, ACLU, AMA, DOL, aka, etc).  To facilitate clear understanding without creating embarrassment, when communicating with a foreign-born professional, you can make your sentence the tiniest bit longer by saying the whole name of the agency, law, act, department to which you are referring.  Lengthening your sentences a wee bit will increase understanding and reduce cultural embarrassment.