Language and empathy, Part 2: English from another point of view

This is the second in a short series of posts to restart my blogging for another year, and all relate to language learning and empathy. Each of the 3 posts will suggest a new year’s resolution for anybody hoping to develop their connections with others through language in 2016.

Resolution #2. Appreciate how your use of language may appear to others.

As an alternative to the one proposed in the BBC article which I mentioned in my first post in this series, I would like to suggest another language learning resolution, this time especially for monolingual English speakers: how about learning English?

I don’t mean this in the snobby, condescending, pedantic sense of insisting on “good grammar” or “proper style” favoured by language mavens everywhere.

I mean that if embarking on an entirely unfamiliar language seems too scary a place to start, perhaps we could all make some headway on better intercultural communication if monolingual English speakers invested some time in recognising the complexities of the English language from the perspective of somebody who, unlike them, has not learned or used it since childhood.

This might help avoid the high risk of communication breakdown evident in scenarios such as these:

Train platform attendant at Heathrow Airport, speaking very fast: “If you’re travelling to London Paddington, please go all the way down the platform; the next train will not stop at this end of the platform so if you’re going to London Paddington go all the way down please; the next train will not reach this end of the platform”

Worker attending the queue of 100+ tourists waiting to board the Ellis Island Ferry in New York: “Bring it around! Plenty of room on the bow, up to the second deck, that’s where you wanna be! Quicker along the gangway!”

Note that these are real examples of potentially unclear English usage, uttered by real people in real-world contexts (and transcribed by me immediately, as I knew I would want to remember them!).

It typically takes some experience of learning/teaching/studying a second language before a monolingual English speaker can truly appreciate the difficulty of processing the following (especially at high speed):

  • conditional constructions
  • proper nouns (e.g. London Paddington)
  • low-frequency words like “reach”, “bow”, “deck” and “gangway”
  • multi-word fixed phrases like “all the way” or “plenty of room”
  • opaque idiomatic expressions like “bring it around”

It seems these speakers haven’t got such experience, though I imagine they must have a great deal of experience of shouting these messages until they’re hoarse and of the ensuing feelings of frustration when the gathering tourists don’t follow their instructions.

Of course, I don’t know these speakers personally. I don’t know if they speak any languages besides English, or if they’ve ever studied or considered linguistic form and function in any way. And I want to be clear: I mean to make no judgments as to their general character or intelligence based on their use of language in these instances.

What I do know is that their jobs clearly require them to interact frequently with people from around the world, people whose level of proficiency in English is probably not immediately apparent. So wouldn’t simply slowing down and grading the message be the most sensible, useful, professional, respectful and, above all, effective thing to do here? Otherwise, the very object of these communicative acts — to wit: quickly and efficiently communicating a simple but important and time-sensitive message to a large group of people — is defeated. Their purpose and effect is entirely undermined by the speakers’ inability to recognise the needs of their audience or to monitor their own use of language for content that will probably not be understood!

I recall that the poor guy at the Ellis Island ferry was practically purple in the face from exasperation at being ignored. But seriously — when is the last time you used the words “gangway” or “bow”, in any language?! Is it any wonder his pleas were falling on deaf ears?

The point is, there are innumerable scenarios like this in the world now, where English is the primary medium of communication either to or among people from many different first-language backgrounds. And a good number of those groups probably won’t be sporting big neon signs above their heads to let others know their level of knowledge and comfort in using English. For people charged with crowd control in such scenarios, a bare minimum of empathy with the people they’re trying to manage could avoid silliness like that described above.

This isn’t particularly difficult, after a bit of reflection and practice. Here’s a list of questions such a speaker might ask him/herself:

  • Are any (or many) of the words I am using unusual or potentially unfamiliar, even to people whose first language is English?
  • Am I using phrases whose overall meaning isn’t discoverable from the sum of their parts (e.g. “bring it around” to mean “form a queue on the left-hand side”)? Is there a simpler way to say it, even if I think it feels uncomfortably blunt or direct? (I can always deliver it with a smile!)
  • Am I using language which is particular to my dialect of English, but which other people might not recognise? (Here’s a widely-shared example of how bewildering it can be trying to understand someone else’s slang/dialect, featuring two well-educated and well-travelled people who both speak English as their first language.)
  • How quickly am I speaking?
  • Are the people I’m addressing actually ready to listen? Have I got their attention? Am I facing them? Are they facing me? Can they see my mouth and facial expression?
  • Can I support my speech with simple gestures or environmental clues? (e.g. Could I point to a particular part of a train platform when I’m referring to it?)
  • Is the audio quality of my speech being distorted through an electronic channel (e.g. a tannoy system)?
  • Are the people I’m addressing possible tired and/or disoriented and/or distracted in general? Have they just stepped off a long-haul flight? Are there small children with them, tugging at their sleeves?

It occurs to me that many of these prompts would serve equally well for inexperienced teachers whose students often seem to have trouble understanding their instructions…

The view from the ferry, which we eventually got on.
The view from the ferry, which we eventually got on.

7 thoughts on “Language and empathy, Part 2: English from another point of view

  1. Enjoyable post, Laura, thanks for writing. I’ve been saying for a few years now that something I would like to do and something that will need to happen (unless it already does or global warming renders it all useless anyway) is classes for native speakers on international communication. All I mean by this is shortish courses in which awareness can be raised of the types of points you mention above. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for new teachers on pre-service courses is often simply lacking awareness of their own use of English, something of which you will be acutely aware. But these people want to be teachers and are taking a course to do so, so should start to develop some limited awareness (the Matrix moment is probably a while off, but still); it’s those others who will deal frequently with NNSs that need this kind of training, which means those in multi-nationals, NGOs, gap-year students, those working in the tourist industry, essential services (hospitals and so on), etc. Interesting what Maureen said above as that could well be what I’m talking about. But alas, I’ve never done more than just talk and I don’t think the CELTees are really that interested when I do so anyway.

    1. Ah, I’m sure the CELTees are interested in your reflections on intelligibility, if you make such points as clearly and amusingly as you do in your blog writing! And yes, I think there’s plenty of potential in such training, though Maureen’s points about funding concerns are probably all too true…

  2. Heard some more great examples from the guy managing the security check process in Newark International Airport yesterday. He asked people waiting to go through the metal detector to “scoot over” (this was met with a few blank faces) and then to divide into two lines. I quote: “like the Red Sea”.

  3. Some years ago, IH London delivered some training for the Metropolitan Police on how to grade your language to be more comprehensible to non-native speakers. It was a complete revelation to them! Simple things, like not using phrasal verbs, made a big difference.In addition, the idea of grading rather than saying the same thing slower and more loudly, was shocking. I think there is a lot of work we could be doing in this area with public services [police, hospital staff, transport services] but unfortunately, in the UK, these are the areas where budgets are being drastically cut, so there is no funding….

  4. Thanks for that! I so often notice the same stuff going on and think about what’s needed to fill the gaps. And decide that ultimately, it’s all about awareness and empathy, just as you have it here. Bravo.

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