There are a myriad of ways of classifying all sorts of different ‘Englishes’. Since leaving the UK and moving to Spain, I think about this a lot more than ever before, and it strikes me that I’m dealing with three different kinds of English on almost a daily basis:
1. Native-Speaker Level English
2. International English
3. The kind of English only understood by non-native English speakers who share the same same native tongue.
Let’s start with number 1. Needless to say, not all native English speakers understand each other, and even if they do, they like to squabble over whose version is the ‘correct’ one. I quite relish these little disputes, and, as a non-native English speaker myself, I enjoy the privilege of picking and choosing what takes my fancy without being sneered at as a ‘traitor’ to my linguistic roots. For example, I’ve adopted “gotten” as the past tense of “get”. A Brit would rather take a swig of sulphuric acid than let that one pass his lips. For the most part, though, I stick to British English, ’cause that’s what I know.
As for International English, it is arguably THE tool of global communication. But oh, it’s insipid, bloodless, without zest, stripped of all cultural context and regional idiosyncrasies, which make communication rich, satisfying, stimulating and amusing. International English is like a corpse that you revive to perform a particular task, and while its heart is beating and its lungs are pumping, it has no soul.
The third category is one that all adult learners of English (or any other second language!) inevitably pass through. They start using English by bending it to the pattern of their own native language, and while a Spanish-speaking person’s beginner’s level ‘English’ will easily be understood by a fellow Spanish speaker, an American or a Korean will sometimes be at a loss. Two English learners of the same nationality conversing can be a bit like infant twins babbling to one another in their own secret language – they ‘get’ each other, but their jabberings are largely unintelligible to outsiders.
There are two obvious reasons why this happens: First of all, there is the issue of accent. Spanish, for example, only has five vowel sounds, while English has more than twenty. For a Spanish speaker, it is extremely difficult to hear these subtle differences, never mind reproduce them accurately. So, they will pronounce the words “sheet” & “shit” and “low” & “law” exactly the same. Most often than not, the meaning will be clear from the context, but often it won’t be, especially if you’re not used to listening to a particular accent, or if there is not enough accompanying context.
The second hurdle to outsider intelligibility results from the translation process. Especially in the early stages of language learning, people directly translate what they want to say, often word for word, from their native into the target language. It’s the raw “Google Translate” mode, which yields famously unpredictable results. Just a few days ago, I had this email response from a potential new language exchange candidate:
“Ok, but I go few to Toledo. If I go, I tell you. At any rate, if you don’t come bad and you want, we can talk by the computer”
If I don’t come bad?! If you happen to speak Spanish, you’ll understand exactly where he’s coming from. The Spanish expression “Si te viene bien”, which, if you translate it directly into English, results in a non-sensical “if it comes you good”. But it actually means “if it suits you”. He’s used it in the negative here (that wouldn’t work in English anyway), which is akin to an informal version of “if it’s not too inconvenient for you”.
I know that a lot of the people who read this blog are either EFL teachers, or avid foreign language learners, or both. I’m hoping for some amusing anecdotes in the comments