Sunday, January 1, 2017
That Dog Don’t Hunt
It is most interesting to watch the evolution of English as an international language. Until the Internet revolution, for example, sophisticated English-speakers in India – reflecting their British rule until 1948 – spoke with a decidedly upscale London twang. But as the United States began relying heavily on India-based call-centers – “Hello, my name is Bob” – the accents rapidly gravitated toward that flat mid-Atlantic Americanese. There were diction and language schools all over India teaching that American accent. They went for “neutral” American, and today you can almost separate educated Indians by generations simply based on their choice of dialect when speaking English. Older – British. Younger – American.
But even as English (mostly with an American lilt) has become a must-speak for international business, assuming that we remain the major force in global markets (not a certainty anymore), it takes a lot more than an accent to make oneself understood overseas. Americans lace their conversations with lots of idioms and metaphors that just plain don’t travel. The title of this piece is a southern expression for “that’s really not a good idea.” It travels abroad almost as well as “it’s fourth and inches” or “that’s a home run.” Uniquely American sports just don’t carry much meaning overseas.
To most non-North American English-speakers, “football” still means soccer, and if you are referring to the Denver Broncos or the Seattle Seahawks, that’s “American football,” if they even get that allusion at all.
While there are strange pockets of native English-speakers in countries like Singapore (where English is one of three legal languages, along with Mandarin and Malay) or the Philippines (English and Filipino/Tagalog are official languages), local expressions have created dialects that are just plain indecipherable to Americans. Singlish is almost a language unto itself, adding words and phrases (often abbreviated or adapted) from other local languages. An “ah beng” is a badly-dressed hick. Even seemingly pure English phrases have different meanings to Singaporeans. For example, “ah then?" is the sarcastic response given to glaringly obvious questions or statements.
In India, where there are dozens of local dialects not remotely understood by folks from other parts of the Subcontinent, English has become a “subsidiary official” language, one that all educated Indians speak; it is the language of Indian commerce and national political communication (English crosses over local dialects). While 41% of Indians speak Hindi, the linguistic diversity pushes English to the fore for anyone doing business across the country. But there are words that baffle outsiders. They tell you they are speaking English, but... If you’re “out of station” in India, you are out of town. A “dacoit” is a criminal miscreant, while a “crore” is ten million; a “lakh” is a mere hundred thousand. Read the local papers in English and prepare to be most confused.
For native speakers, slipping into idiomatic English can seriously undermine an international dialog; some of us simply need to learn how to edit those idioms out of such conversations. When an American flows into his or her idiomatic habits, while they might think they are being clear, as often as not, they simply are not being understood.
“With non-native English speakers now vastly outnumbering native speakers, it’s up to the latter to be more adaptable, says Neil Shaw, intercultural fluency lead at the British Council, the UK’s international educational and cultural body. About 1.75 billion people worldwide speak English at a useful level, and by 2020 it’s expected to be two billion, according to the British Council.
“In the Council’s new intercultural fluency courses launched in September, native English speakers in countries from Singapore to South Africa have been prompted to rethink how they communicate. ‘It’s a bit of a revelation to many of them that their English isn’t as clear and effective as they think it is,’ Shaw says.
“Increasingly, English is being used as a lingua franca. ‘It’s not an exotic thing anymore to be working in a global, virtual team,’ says Robert Gibson, an intercultural consultant based in Munich, Germany. ‘It’s everyday life for many people and it’s quite stressful and difficult.’…
“It can be a culture shock for native speakers to encounter new varieties of English…‘The English language is changing quite radically,’ says Gibson. ‘The trend is not to have one or two clear standard Englishes like American English and British English, but to have a lot of different types of English.’
“Chinese English, known as chinglish, and German English, called denglish, are examples, he says. ‘English is also developing within organisations. In companies, they have their own style of English which is not necessarily understood by native speakers. We are getting away from saying that there is a standard English you need to conform to [towards] saying that there are different standards of English for different situations.’
“Mother-tongue English may not even be an advantage anymore, says Dr. Dominic Watt, sociolinguistics expert at the University of York in the UK… ‘It’s not necessarily in your interests to be a native speaker of English because you haven’t had to go through the same learning process that the non-natives have. So they’re all on the same page and it’s the native speakers who are the odd ones out,’ Watt says.” BBC.com, December 16th.
In the end, international English is reaching out for neutral commonality. It requires those participating in international communications to edit their writings and spoken phrases into expressions that do not require any special regional knowledge (where idioms are born) and embrace a pretty linear and dictionary-literal meaning. And it varies from country to country. Think you can play that game? We Americans are spoiled, because English is still the go-to international common ground… well sort-of English. But we need to try harder to speak to be understood. And then: Will French, Spanish or Mandarin displace English over time?
I’m Peter Dekom, and finding common ground in a world that seems to be splintering apart does require the ability at least to speak with each other.