There’s English and there’s English.

Language is very important to all of us, which ever one it is that we speak.  Over 20,000 people a year read my old post on 102 Words That Aren’t In English But Should Be 102 Words That Aren’t In English But Should Be.  A few weeks ago however a report appeared that put the cat amongst the pigeons and it discussed a divergence between British English and the English that people around the world learn as a second or third language.

It all comes down to idioms and the British are proud of the idiomatic humour of their language.  My professor once told me that 3 people can read a page of Persian literature and they would each come to a different conclusion as to what the text is about.  British English isn’t quite like that but it does have its moments.

An academic has argued that that British English and global English is diverging as us British use phrases that are deeply ingrained in our language which are not taught elsewhere.

Professor Jennifer Jenkins, chair of Global Englishes at the University of Southampton, says that people who speak English as a first language are bad at changing their speech to suit non-native speakers, meaning they struggle to be understood.

The divide means those who speak English as a second language speak it very differently to native speakers – and the two groups are increasingly unable to understand each other, she argues.

Native speakers are also unwilling to make allowances for others by changing their speech patterns or slowing them down – meaning they struggle to socialise with non-native speakers who are better able to communicate with each other in English than they are with the British.

The dynamic means the two groups could be unable to understand each other in as little as a decade – putting native speakers at a disadvantage with the rest of the world.

In one case she interviewed Hungarian, German and Italian students who said they could speak to each other perfectly well but only had trouble when a native English speaker joined the conversation.

“Not only did the British keep to themselves but they also said that they get along very well, they understand each other, and the only trouble comes when a really British person comes and joins the conversation,”

In another case, interviews with 34 PhD non-British students who spoke English revealed that they struggled to understand their British counterparts who “didn’t make any allowances for the fact that they came from a different language, they spoke very very fast, used very idiomatic language, they joked a lot, the lecturers joked a lot, using very British-referenced jokes,” she said.

The theory appears in a new book, “Languages After Brexit”, as part of an essay in which Professor Jenkins argues that native English speakers are worse at communicating clearly than people who have it has a second language.

She cites one case where an interviewer on BBC Radio 3 asks Italian opera singer Roberto Alagna whether his trip to London was “going swimmingly”. It was clear that singer did not have any idea of what this idiom meant, and the interviewer, after an uncomfortable pause, realised this and asked instead ‘Is it going well?’

Another interviewer, a Channel 4 news presenter who was bilingual, asked then-French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron how he would challenge the country’s rightward move by asking “So how would you buck that trend?” leaving Macron confused.

“While in both cases, the interviewer, especially the second one, was able to paraphrase fairly speedily (which is by no means always the case), these two anecdotes demonstrate that native speakers who have experience of speaking English with non-natives, and even those who have other languages, may find it problematic to adjust spontaneously away from their local use of English,” Professor Jenkins adds.

English as spoken by foreign countries is also developing new grammar rules which are seen as incorrect by native speakers but are valued abroad because they are logical and efficient.

For example, nouns which do not become plural in native English, such as “feedback” or “information”, are made plural by foreign speakers into “feedbacks” or “informations”.

Whilst I can see what the research is getting at; I don’t think it is a particular problem with the English language.  It is only that British people are immersed in the language which has shaped our history and culture for thousands of years.  No-one else could be expected to learn the intricacies.  Whilst people say they have learnt English, generally speaking they speak a simplified, approximate form of English to each other, which is to some degree impoverished relative to their respective native languages.   This means having learnt it in books or by repetition at school they can communicate for most everyday purposes such as travel or socialising.  However, they are restricted in what they can express and miss out on precise shades of meaning, specific reasoning, wit, irony, allusions, wordplay etc.
That’s okay though, I can say that I can speak French and German.  I can read newspapers, get around on holiday and chat with varying degrees of success.  However it by no way means I can speak German to anything like the sophistication of a German.  Probably a German 5 year old would have all sorts of slang that isn’t in the text books, let alone a 50 year old.   If I wanted to speak a specific sentence then I might be able to do it in two ways at best in German.  It doesn’t mean I haven’t learn German properly it is just that only Germans can properly speak German.  People aren’t robots and it would be really boring and surprising if they kept precisely to what they encountered when reading as a four year old.
Language isn’t just a method of communication but an important part of culture and that is something that you can’t really teach.  Personally it seems quite obvious that a British speaker or indeed American or Australian etc should simplify their language when speaking to someone who obviously has learnt it as a second language but it also goes to show that just because you qualify in anything, a language, a qualification or even a driving test it doesn’t mean that you know everything and in most cases you really only know the basics with the intricacies all dependent on years of experience.
I really enjoy all the quirks and unsual aspects of foreign cultures and languages; the concepts or ideas that aren’t articulated so well in English but likewise I would hate it for English to become banal and boring, simple and logical just so that everyone can speak it to a lower level.  English isn’t just a tool but like every other language a rich elaborate branch of culture and if a comparative reliance of idioms distinguishes it from the more standardised business English then that’s great.
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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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9 Responses to There’s English and there’s English.

  1. I enjoyed this post. As you know, my family is American/Italian, and everybody speaks both. Something that I have noticed (other than American’s inability to recognize idioms and offer alternative simplified concepts) is that they seem to never teach glottal stops and half-stops which are very important to the “flow” of English, American or British. Just ask someone to say “I couldn’t button all of my buttons” and you will know if they are a native speaker! That full-stop (nasal) between the d and n in “couldn’t” and the throat-stop between the two t’s in the word button are dead giveaways. At least in American English. I suppose there are still a few hoity-toity (there’s one for you!) Brits who try to avoid the glottal stop as a class-identifier….Ha. Lately here we are having to hear Millenials pronouncing the trendy elimination of t”s in the middle of words, thus the ever amusing Russian president “Poo-in.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad you liked it. I actually wrote it 6 weeks ago but was a bit worried about posting it incase it came over the wrong way so kept it on hold. That’s interesting about the dropping of t’s over there. It is very similar to the accent you get here in the West Country, places like Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. As Plymouth is in Devon there is a school of thought that the American accent was strongly influenced by that particular dialect so maybe the Millenial’s are just going back to their roots… to bring in another idiom 🙂

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  2. Might be. Although we always think that the Irish accent is most similar to American English, and my husband (the native Italian) finds it much easier to understand a fast-talking Irishman than a Brit! But I have always been amazed at how many similar/identical idioms there are in English and Italian. Some even in the local dialect,and not in Italian, precisely the same idioms. Wonder who did the deriving, and when?? If the idioms are in the very old dialect, then that indicates to me that possibly they originated in continental Europe.

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    • About 10 years ago there was a fascinating documentary with people in Brittany and Cornwall, the Netherlands and East Anglia, Northumberland and Norway etc and some very old people could talk in their local dialects and older folk in those in the European countries could understand them and vice-versa. A friend of my Grandfather in WW2 spent 6-9 months learning Italian and when they landed in or near Sicily, he was apparently upset that none of the locals could understand his textbook Italian 🙂

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      • So true. In our town, the local dialect has grabbed words from all over. My favorite example is the word for refrigerator, which is of course “frigorifero” or “frigo” in Italian. Here it is (was, but that is a sad story indeed, thank you globalization!) “entuostaiacqua” which means “that which hardens the water.” Ha! See a water mirage on the highway? Also a new term, and here it is “ummarawaall” which means same as the sea. Fascinating!

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  3. Pronunciation is another factor. In Asia and Europe I’ve witnessed Brits with regional accents speaking perfectly straightforward, non-idiomatic English as they ask questions about the menu or some other everyday thing, but failing to make themselves understood because their unfamiliar accents get in the way. Choice of vocabulary is one thing, speed if delivery is another; but if your accent is outlandish then your speed and word-choice will be the least of your problems.

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  4. A very good read. But all languages are dynamic, except for a few dead languages , sometimes even without the speakers realising it.

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