Sunday, May 2, 2021

Mind your language - the problems of English as default

Photo by Nothing Ahead from Pexels

English is the default language of international communication but at the same time this puts native speakers in an extremely privileged position. Most international conferences feature keynotes by native English speakers and these voices tend to be prominent in most workshops and seminar sessions. Those whose command of English is less than perfect tend to sit quietly and listen. It would be interesting to see a study of whether active participation is directly linked to confidence in English. Even those whose English is extremely proficient may have trouble understanding the native speakers who often use idioms  or jokes and cultural references that only native speakers will be familiar with. I have often listened to speeches and wondered if anyone else in the hall understood the highly culturally specific reference made by the speaker. It's not enough to simply be proficient at English, you need to learn an entire culture.

This is illustrated by the opening of an article in KQEDTower Of Babble: Nonnative Speakers Navigate The World Of 'Good' And 'Bad' English.

Picture this: A group of nonnative English speakers is in a room. There are people from Germany, Singapore, South Korea, Nigeria and France. They're having a great time speaking to each other in English, and communication is smooth. And then an American walks into the room. The American speaks quickly, using esoteric jargon ("let's take a holistic approach") and sports idioms ("you hit it out of the park!"). And the conversation trickles to a halt.

I've had similar experiences when I was learning Swedish many years ago. We non-native speakers could have very good discussions because we had all learned the same vocabulary and grammar, but when a Swede entered the conversation we suddenly got tongue-tied. They used expressions we didn't recognise and spoke so quickly. No-one wanted to reveal their limitations. 

The article gives several examples of how non-native speakers can be excluded or marginalised and the main point is that native speakers should learn to adapt their language to the audience they are speaking to. This doesn't mean simplifying, but being able to recognise idioms and references that the audience cannot be expected to grasp. English speakers who have never tried to learn another language are often insensitive to this and often speak as they would to their colleagues at home not realising how they are failing to connect with the audience.

The tests that non-native English speakers need to pass to gain access to international work are also unfairly discriminatory according to the article. They test a very particular form of English and people who have an excellent command of the language for the work they do can fail tests like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) because they haven't grasped the finer points of written academic English or indeed the differences between American and British English.

The test also requires making a clear choice between British and American spelling and vocabulary. That "can trip up people whose English comes from various sources" — say, a third from British textbooks and two-thirds from American movies.

Indeed, the differences between American and British English are becoming increasingly blurred especially in the UK where American media and culture are so prevalent. I'm sure you'll find a mix of the two in my writing. Is this worth testing today? What matters if whether the candidate has the level of English to do their job. According to Lithuanian journalist Daiva Repečkaitė:

"As the pandemic rages," she said, "I worry that there might be countless refugee doctors and nurses who just haven't read enough Shakespeare or haven't practiced enough multiple-choice, fill-in exercises to pass these tests in English-speaking countries." Especially at a time when the burden of COVID-19 weighs heavily on the world, Repečkaitė says, we all suffer when skilled professionals like doctors are prevented from helping people.

Linguistic integration is a two-way process and native speakers need to learn to adapt their language in international contexts. Avoid unnecessary idioms, references and jokes, speak a little more slowly and clearly and your message will be clear. Otherwise the audience may still give polite applause but they will not have understood your message. 

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