di Rachel Roberts
I received an email from a reader recently, complaining about a lack of understanding and empathy on the part of the British when foreign people try to speak their language. “Why,” he asked, “when we spend so long struggling to master English, don’t British people make any attempt to speak clearly and simply?” It’s not the first time I’ve heard this complaint. People who go to conferences for work say that they can understand all the speakers except the British and the Americans, and people who go to the UK on holiday comment that even those who work in the tourist industry – hotel staff etc. – are unable to express themselves in a way that is understandable for their foreign clients.
The problem certainly exists and I think there are several reasons for it. First of all, most mother-tongue English speakers study very little grammar at school. They certainly don’t have to perform the complex in depth analyses that Italian school kids are expected to do. Instead they spend a lot of time practising different writing styles. This may help to develop self-expression, but it means that mother-tongue speakers often find it hard to distinguish between a simple grammatical structure and a complex one.
We very rarely use labels to describe our own language. Few Brits have ever heard of linguistic terms such as the “present simple” or the “present perfect continuous” and they have no idea which one is the easier structure. In fact, they are highly likely to use both incorrectly depending on where they come from and where they see themselves in the famous class system. Grammatical “errors” are a hallmark of certain “cool” ways of speaking. You’ve all heard Eric Clapton singing “She don’t like cocaine”!
Grammar is changing all the time. British people have been committing US-style grammar heresies, with expressions like “How are you? – I’m GOOD” for some time and, recently, even the difference between countables and uncountables seems to be breaking down. Well-educated journalists and veteran TV and radio presenters will come out with “incorrect” language such as “THERE’S a lot of politicians,” or ‘There are LESS drawbacks with this system’ etc. Language students all over the world will get a red mark in their homework for writing something like this, but this particular “mistake” has become so common in the UK that it has passed into current usage and should perhaps not be considered a mistake any longer.
That’s not all. The standard or “received” pronunciation English language students try so hard to attain is often described as “BBC” English in the UK. People who don’t consider themselves to be upper-middle class studiously avoid using this accent in case their friends think they secretly went to public school.
Another problem is zero motivation. Although foreign languages are compulsory in the British school curriculum, most mother-tongue speakers have realized that English is pretty much established as the international language of communication, so they don’t really see the point in struggling to learn French or German. Of course some Brits are good at foreign languages, but this is likely to be because it is a particular interest or theirs.
English language teaching is a huge business. In most major European cities there’s an English school on nearly every street and parents spent a lot of money on extra coaching for their children. The equivalent, in other languages, does not exist in the English-speaking world.
If that all seems unfair, don’t lose hope. If Brits and Americans are unaware of how difficult it can be to master a foreign language and become insensitive to non-mother-tongue speakers as a result, they may pay for it in the end. All over the world people are learning standard English with established grammar rules and an accepted pronunciation; this does not happen in English-speaking countries. As globalization forces us to become more and more connected, an international language of communication will be of paramount importance. Ironically, the people less able to use it for effective international communication will be the people born in the very country where that language originated.
Unless British and American schools start training their students in the art of “clarity of communication,” they will eventually find themselves at a disadvantage in any international interaction.