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…