English speakers

Penny has yet to drop for English speakers by Michael Skapinker

1. In an interview before this month’s England-France rugby match, I heard a BBC reporter ask Serge Betsen, the former French international, about the time he “knocked seven bells” out of the opposition at the same ground.


2. I winced. Mr Betsen’s English is pretty good, but how was he to make sense of such an obscure expression? He seemed to manage. Either he guessed from the context, or, having played in England, he had heard it used before.

3. By contrast, when another Frenchman, the former footballer Eric Cantona, managed the New York Cosmos in a match against his old club Manchester United, he seemed to fail to understand the question: “What will it be like in the away dugout?” It was odd, perhaps, after his years in the game, but it shows that native speakers need to take care when talking to people for whom English is a second language.


4. It is an issue I have been aware of ever since I heard about an Austrian banker who said: “I always find it easier to do business in English with partners from Greece or Russia or Denmark. But when the Irish call, it gets complicated.”


5. Anyone wanting to get to the top of international business, medicine or academia needs to be able to speak English to a pretty high level. Equally, any native English speaker wanting to deal with these new high achievers needs to know how to talk without baffling them.


6. Because so many English-speakers today are monoglots, they have little idea how difficult it is to master another language. Many think the best way to make foreigners understand is to be chatty and informal. This may seem friendly but, as it probably involves using colloquial expressions it makes comprehension harder.


7. Speaking slowly helps, but more important is avoiding figurative or idiomatic expressions. You may think you’ve bent over backwards to make yourself clear and that understanding your English is a piece of cake, but your audience is unlikely to have the foggiest idea what you are on about. Phrasal verbs (verb plus a particle) are another bugbear for non-native English speakers: imagine trying to understand the difference between “I couldn’t put up with him” and “I agreed to put him up”. Far better to say “I couldn’t tolerate him” and “I agreed to offer him accommodation”. The words may be longer but the meaning is easier to grasp.


8. Academic studies have shown that learners of English go to great lengths to avoid using phrasal verbs. They are happier to try when the meaning is literal, such as “go out” or “take away”. Figurative phrasal verbs, such as “let down” or “brush up on”, are a real problem, even for speakers of languages such as Dutch that have very similar constructions.


9.The greatest friend to anyone trying to understand another language is repetition: not saying the same thing over and over again, but saying it in different ways. “So, Eric Cantona, you were a great Manchester United player. They loved you here. Now you’re on the other side. You’re their opponent. How does that make you feel? What will it be like in the away dugout?”

Even if he fails to understand the final question, the rest will compensate (and note how we avoid using the complicated phrase “will make up for it”).