So you’re a native English speaker, huh?
Somehow, from no effort of your own, you were born speaking fluently the world’s predominant language. The linga franca, if you will. Lucky you! You can now read, write, use the Internet, travel and work with ease. You respond to any speaker in English, confident that they’ll understand you because they’ve undoubtedly studied your language. It is, after all, the most important language in the world today, especially in business. The world is your oyster, largely because you don’t have to use any of your precious time to study another language (despite knowing full well the benefits.)
So you don’t study another language. Ha! Like you’d need it, and in the meantime that oyster has closed right up on you, taking with it work, love and life opportunities.
Being born a native English speaker isn’t enough.
One trip around the world will tell you that there is much more to communication than just vocabulary and grammar. Knowing a language is about these things, yes, but it’s also about knowing the connotation, the weight of words, the slang, the cultural references, the sarcasm. And while abroad, your native English that has served you so well might not be enough to truly communicate.
A BBC article titled “Native English Speakers are the World’s Worst Communicators,” gets right to the point:
“A lot of native speakers are happy that English has become the world’s global language. They feel they don’t have to spend time learning another language,” says [Chia Suan Chong, a UK-based communications skills and intercultural trainer].
“But… often you have a boardroom full of people from different countries communicating in English and all understanding each other and then suddenly the American or Brit walks into the room and nobody can understand them.”
Far too often I see English speakers abroad respond to their bewildered waiter (who strained to say three words in English to his client) as if they were in America. “Oh well I was thinking about getting the pepe e cacio but I don’t know, it seems silly to get a mac and cheese when you’re in Italy! Amirite?! So what’s in this pasta dish?”
They don’t take into consideration the speed at which they’re talking, their strange accent, the jokes that aren’t funny and won’t come across in another culture, or the fact that the waiter likely knows just the few words he needs to do his job on a daily basis. The same goes with any English business abroad.
“The non-native speakers, it turns out, speak more purposefully and carefully, typical of someone speaking a second or third language. Anglophones, on the other hand, often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture, says Chong.”
The article continues, reminding native English speakers that a gap in conversation could simply be a non-native speaker trying to formulate a response.
When I was at the beginning of my Italian language journey, I was happy to have a chance to talk with anyone, but infinitely happier when they realized my struggle and slowed down, when they didn’t automatically respond in English and when they quickly but politely corrected my mistakes.
I also found that women tended to be easier to talk with, usually because they seemed to be more empathetic of me and receptive of my responses. Whatever your gender, following facial and other communication cues to gauge the comprehension level of your interlocutor is important.
“When trying to communicate in English with a group of people with varying levels of fluency, it’s important to be receptive and adaptable, tuning your ears into a whole range of different ways of using English, [Jennifer Jenkins, professor of global Englishes at the UK’s University of Southampton] says.”
“People who’ve learned other languages are good at doing that, but native speakers of English generally are monolingual and not very good at tuning in to language variation,” she says.
There are hundreds of different accents and dialects in English, so you can be pretty sure that English abroad is not native English. It’s an international English created from non-native English speakers communicating regularly, translating from their native languages into English and bringing with it all of the cultural background. This means saying auto instead of car, toilet instead of restroom, full formal verbs like arrive and return instead of the more colloquial phrasal verbs “got there” and “go back”.
Dale Coulter, head of English at language course provider TLC International House in Baden, Switzerland, agrees: “English speakers with no other language often have a lack of awareness of how to speak English internationally.”
After all, English is a complicated language, with a wide background. Remember this video about the history of the English language? Crazy shit.
Because let’s not forget that American English isn’t the only English that exists. Beyond international English there is British English, which the vast majority of Europeans have studied their entire life. So no, American, you might not get away with saying sweater, when the entire continent has studied “jumper” all of their school career.
And that’s not to mention the undertones of each word.
The article gives an excellent example of using a word culturally, but not literally, and the repercussions of that:
“When a Brit reacts to a proposal by saying, “That’s interesting” a fellow Brit might recognise this as understatement for, “That’s rubbish.” But other nationalities would take the word “interesting” on face value, he says.”
The thing is, it’s up to us native speakers to adapt, not others. In the world of business the key is good communication. If that means changing your style to better suit the international English of your international colleagues, so be it. And when we’re abroad traveling, it’s up to us to adapt to the host country’s culture. If we don’t learn their language, the least we can do is modify ours to make everyone more comfortable. Because if we don’t, we’re the ones missing out. We miss the chance to close a deal because of a misunderstanding. We miss the chance to go on a date, to find a hidden restaurant, to shop a sale or make the train. We miss a chance to share our culture and we very likely miss the chance to fully understand another.
In review (or for those of you too busy to actually read the post):
How to speak English abroad, and actually be understood:
- Go slow and don’t rush to fill gaps in conversation. Sometimes your interlocutor simply needs time to think in his second language before responding.
- Pay attention to reactions. If the other person doesn’t understand, it’s up to you to explain in a new way. Use synonyms and clear, easy words.
- That said, don’t talk louder, it doesn’t help anything.
- Use an “international” English. This will come easier the more and more you travel, but in the meantime listen up, you’ll learn by listening to others.
- Know a thing or two about British English, the differences in vocabulary could come in handy.
- Avoid tangents, slang and jokes with cultural references. Despite the fact that you may share a knowledge of English, you don’t necessarily share the same cultural background and these references will likely fall flat without extensive explanations.