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Native English Speakers’ Need to Adapt to Non-Natives


Native English speaker? Good for you!

Confident that you would pass any grammar test thrown at you with flying colours? Fabulous!

So the news that you may, in fact, have to rethink or relearn your own native tongue in order to make people understand you better might not be something you readily want to hear. We get it: no one likes having their flaws constantly pointed out to them. But consider this: native speakers, of any language, because this is not something only found in English, have a natural tendency to speak to strangers if not with the level of intimacy we have with our nearest and dearest then at least with a peppering of slang, sayings and colloquialisms that could leave an unassuming listener feeling bewildered.

It is time to consider our listeners and think about why we might need to seriously think about relearning English for ourselves. Hear us out.

Making the grade

GIF via Giphy

Of course, the above is not news to those of us who teach English as a second or foreign language. Early on in our teaching careers we discover that if we do not grade our language accordingly to the level of our students - that is to say, adjust the complexity of our vocabulary, the speed with which we speak, the clarity with which we enunciate - then we don’t stand a chance at helping our students achieve their language goals. In fact the opposite is true; a teacher unwilling or unable to grade their language is often a confidence killer and can make students feel that it is they who are in the wrong (spoilers: they’re not).

Off on our jollies

That is to say, going on holiday, a vacation and whatever other expressions us native English speakers use to say we are taking some time away from our everyday lives and jobs to soak up some sun (other holiday options are available). And this is sort of the point, isn’t it? Because a learner of English may be used to hearing one particular kind of English, be it British, American, Australian, or whichever other version of it. If they learn with an American teacher, then hearing about a holiday might flummox them because they are listening out for the word vacation. And let’s not even get started with the whole pants (UK) vs pants (US) or even thongs (UK) vs thongs (US) thing, because that might start some of us off tittering and we are attempting to make an earnest point.

Photo via Wikimedia

When we travel, especially for leisure, it is fair to say that many of us native English speakers are guilty of not even casting an eye over a phrasebook before we leave. Suffice to say that on arrival at our destination, if we for example order something to eat, we do it through a range of wild gesticulating, loud and slow speaking, or out and out expectation that the person attempting to serve us already speaks English. For those who do look at the occasional essential words lists that are available all over the internet as well as in our local bookshops, we are outraged that the words we learned on those pages actually have colloquial or different ways of being said when we are in the actual country whose language we are butchering. We know this to be true. So why is it so difficult for some of us to realise our seemingly endless variations on the English language is downright confounding to those attempting to learn it?

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Getting down to business

Which again, has entirely different implications depending on what you are trying to insinuate. In this case, we do actually mean business of the working variety and are thinking about international companies who for the most part converse in English. Imagine the nightmare that is the Skype conference call with participants from across the globe, when the non-native speakers have rehearsed and learned and expect to hear certain phrases, whilst the native speakers are waxing lyrical, dropping expressions left, right and centre and leaving those colleagues whose first language isn’t English feeling distinctly left out. Or silly.

Companies that recognise this difficulty often offer in-house e-courses aimed at native English speakers. To help them understand why they need to think before they speak, use particular language, talk as clearly and precisely as possible. Contraction and articulation of words are crucial and are also things we as native speakers often are guilty of taking for granted that our listeners will understand. These courses are aimed not at pointing out our mistakes, but rather at neutralising some of the things we say so that we may actually be understood.

In summary, we are not saying there is anything wrong with our language skills, not in the slightest. There is no need to adjust the way we speak to those around us who also happen to be fluent in the same language as our own. We are merely offering the suggestion that we should spare a thought for those we are speaking with who are non-native speakers.

Besides: thinking before we speak is never something that’s going to be a bad thing, right? **side-eyes certain most politicians**