How easily understood are you?

1:47 pm Hong Kong Education

by Sue Smith  Director of ITS Exam Services


While English might only be the third largest language in terms of mother tongue speakers (behind Mandarin and Spanish) English is the world’s most widely spoken language – thanks to the number of people for whom English is a second (or sometimes third) language. English is also being used widely as a common or shared language among people who have different mother tongues. How does a Chinese business owner speak with his or her Japanese counterpart? – probably using English.

However, do native speakers of English consider how their use of the language might sound to speakers of other languages? In particular, speakers of other languages have often learnt or studied English and usually have a more explicit understanding of the grammar of English.  They are also less likely to be able to grasp the meaning of everyday usage of English if a variety other than standard English is being used.

So where are the pitfalls for native English speakers when communicating with speakers of other languages and how can they modify their own language use to make themselves more intelligible?

The first place to start is with speed.  The speed with which you speak the language might be impeding communication. For someone who is a learner of a language it is not usually the language itself that makes it difficult to understand what is being said, it is the speed at which the message is being delivered. And as many native English speakers have little or no experience with learning another language, they often fail to understand this.  Any secondary school student who has tried to grapple with a Spanish sitcom or French news report in an endeavor to increase their exposure to and fluency of a target language knows this and it should be something which guides English speakers when speaking to those whose first language is not English.  Of course, the volume at which you speak a language is of little help, as anyone who has witnessed a tourist trying to communicate with hotel or restaurant staff can attest.  Raising your voice will not help get your message through although considerably slowing down the speech with which you speak, might.

Your choice of vocabulary might also be impeding your message.  As any English speaker is well aware, there are different varieties of English. Most speakers of English are very familiar with the variety spoken in their own home country and, due to the ubiquitous influence of TV shows from the United States, many are also familiar with American slang and colloquial language. But that doesn’t mean that all speakers of English share this familiarity.  I am quite confident I could carry on a fairly lengthy conversation in Australian English with another Australian, while effectively excluding speakers who are not familiar with that variety of English, including native speakers.  I remember my surprise when I used the word ‘fortnight’ with an American many years ago and he asked me how long that was.  “Fortnight” is a common word for a period of two weeks in Australia and in England but that was my first experience of typical English language vocabulary not being universally understood.  A word which I had taken to be a common one, was actually one in usage regionally. If this communication problem can arise between native speakers of English who are familiar with different varieties of the language, imagine how much more likely this is to occur with speakers for whom English is not a first language.

Family and friends in my native Australia often comment that my speech has become ‘very American’ by my time of living abroad.  What they mean is that I now choose vocabulary which is, to my mind, more internationally understood.  This is because I am used to communicating with second language English speakers who have considerable exposure to American TV shows and are therefore more likely to be familiar with vocabulary they hear on those shows – which is of course going to be from the American variety of English.  So, while the vocabulary choices are more American the reason is not that I’ve forgotten that Australian term, it is because I am used to making a choice about a word that I feel is more likely to be understood. While the existence of many varieties of English adds a rich diversity to the way we communicate, it shouldn’t become a barrier.

Native speakers of English can do a lot to make sure they are more easily understood when speaking to colleagues, acquaintances and those they encounter from other cultures and countries.  And since the purpose of language is to communicate, you can facilitate this goal by slowing down your speech and speaking a bit less like you would at home.

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