The Three Types Of English (According To Me)

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.

Twins :)

Twins 🙂

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 🙂

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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214 thoughts on “The Three Types Of English (According To Me)

  1. strangequark0

    This was a great read. I’m a “normal” teacher (sorry, hideous term, I mean not an EFL teacher) but have worked in an international summer school for the past 3 summers and find myself learning as much about English as the students! Which I love!
    On a side note, I did my teacher training with two Spanish women, who learned very quickly to say “handout” rather than “worksheet”… 🙂

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  2. yacovan

    I know a guy that went to jail because he broke into a home, and when he was asked by officers about the crime he said For sale no lease means in my language to force in no trouble and that’s what it says on the banner so I forced my self in, and another story is that some people I know will send email like this, hey yacovan how are you, can I ask you a question were do you live yacovan. That’s the end of the story

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Well, that reminds me of a story I read in the the Key West Citizen, where the burglars told the police they had erroneously thought it was their own house which they had entered…

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  3. NicoLite Великий

    I usually deal with native German speakers, who try to speak English, native English speakers who try to speak German, and native Russian speakers trying to speak either German or/and English – and myself, a native bilingual English and German speaker, speaking Russian to Polish, Czech and Lithuanian truck drivers.

    Germans learning English are hilarious, as well as english speakers learning German, though for quite different reasons. Germans have a reputation of trying to get everything right the first time. Accordingly, they try to combine perfect argumentative structure with perfect english grammar. It takes a hell of a lot of experience to understand a German trying to speak english, because they try to impose their German logic upon the English language. If Germans didn’t try so hard, they’d do a much better Job speaking English.

    For most native English speakers, learning German is a matter of fashion. Being German is seen as an excuse for being rude, smartassy, stubborn, and drunk, all the while being economically successful. Only those learning German in a professional capacity don’t half-ass it, and German is a truly difficult language to master – much like Russian. If native English speakers tried harder, they’d do a pretty decent job. German is not a party language;)

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      LOL, what an excellent comment! Why don’t you turn that into a blog post!?
      I agree with your observations, totally. Although, don’t you think that Germans trying to speak English are perhaps more easily understood (by a native English speaker) than, let’s say, someone who speaks a Latin-based language, because of accent issues?

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      1. NicoLite Великий

        imo, English has as many Germanic as Romanic influences. The difficulties with pronounciation are different in sound, but similar in amount, I’d say. But, as I wrote, Germans try really hard. Trying hard, as I’ve experienced, will get you further than any raw talent.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Spanish has a very limited range of vowel sounds, and that makes it a lot harder for them to pronounce English well compared to a German speaker.
        Talent is cheap, but developing a skill is darn hard work 😉 I’m obsessed with getting it right, rather than just making myself understood.

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  4. raind33r94

    I’m a Malaysian and since our country has a mix of different ethnicities, mainly Malay, Chinese and Indian, when we speak English there are a blend of those 3 languages here and there and we might come across unintelligible by outsiders (like you’ve mentioned in your post) but to Malaysians, we make perfect sense. It’s hard for some of us to speak proper English because of that though.

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  5. Mai Ng.

    i’m an English learner, and I’m of the second type. I recognized what you meant some years ago. I dont know how to improve that.
    I try to learn more vocabulary with differences between the samve meaning words to apply in the right context. But English is wide, I cannnot cover up all. I’m so confused, and frustrated.
    With your experiences, would you help to figure out what I should do to reach, at least, nearly native-speaker level?
    Thank you in advance

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there! I know it’s frustrating… I don’t really think it’s possible to get to native speaker level unless you’re living with native speakers in an English-speaking country. That’s what I did. And recently, I moved to Spain for this reason, i.e. to get my Spanish to that level. I realise not everybody can take such a radical step!
      Good luck with your studies. In my experience, people can reach quite a good level by making a persistent effort, by reading and listening every day, paying attention to how the vocab is used in different contexts 🙂

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      1. Mai Ng.

        British accent is obviously standard, easy to catch up with. I dont have many chances to expose to Australian,

        American, to my point of view, so beautiful. cadenced, toneable. Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand, ’cause so many ligatures, words swallowed. I like American accent.

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  6. greatredwoman

    I am a native American speaker who speaks midwestern English…Then, there is east coast English, west coast English and southern drawl English. None of these can truly understand the other, either.

    Yes. English is a challenging language even for native speakers!!

    You write wonderfully! Keep up the good work.

    Welcome..

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there! Yes, there are so many different accents and dialects, even within a single English-speaking country – one could write several tomes on those…
      Thanks for commenting 🙂

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  7. thosesmallmoments

    Can we put part of the blame to Google Translate? I mean, the service is a great help, but sometimes, it just screws things up even more. It doesn’t just apply to English but to all languages out there.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I use it to quickly translate/confirm individual words, but it’s completely useless for pieces of texts, even seemingly simple phrases. And not just in English. I don’t know why they can’t do a better job!

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  8. sylodhi

    After a long time I have come across some analysis which has correctly pointed out the practical side. I am a punjabi native, urdu spaking, public school english (UK) educated person who now happens to correspond in US written english on computers. Yet I cant get to understand most of what I hear from Indians or sirilankans conversing in English.
    Each language has evolved in a particular cultural environment and hence has its subtelities in expressions and thoughts going into the language. The non natives cant get it till such time they live there and start thinking in the same language. Just take the example of Jokes. Most people wont get to understand them in a foreign language.
    Learning a new languaue means getting to understand its culture and how its people think.
    On the contrary..it is rightly pointed out that a foreign language can be without soul. That shall be a text book grammatical language in which we study sciences, other subjects, appear in exams and qualify. It gives us knowledge only..not the soul…..and I think at times it is good. People who want to gain worldly knowledge (like nature sciences or physical sciences) would prefer a global language like english or french and shall not have need to dive into literary nuances and subtelities of literature. They wont partake cultural values of the people who speak it natively rather just take what they need.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Absolutely – culture and language are inexorably linked, and humour has, of course, a big linguistic component, and it also draws on cultural reference points, which an outsider just wouldn’t get.
      And yes, ‘textbook language’ does serve a purpose.
      Thanks for your very insightful comment!

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      1. Rachel

        I’m sure language must have an impact on humour, or at least on what we enjoy, entertainment-wise. I’m an English-speaker. English movies are funny. American and German movies are also pretty good. South American movies are okay. French or Spanish movies? I just sit there going, “Uh… what just happened?”

        Australia doesn’t have many comedy shows – we all watch mostly British ones. Australian English is much closer to British English than American, so while we ‘get’ American humour, it’s not as hilarious for as us British humour.

        So there you have it: the animosity between the US and the UK isn’t hate at all. Brits poke fun as a joke (because Americans are really easy to poke fun at), the Yanks don’t get it and take offence, mystery solved.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        The humour thing is very interesting… the Brits usually pride themselves in ‘being able to laugh at themselves’, but I think every nation does this. Of course, the Brits wouldn’t get Germans poking fun at themselves, simply because 99.99% of the British population’s German isn’t good enough to get it.
        And laughing at yourself and others’ laughing at you are two completely different things 😉

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  9. Pingback: The Three Types Of English (According To Me) | endlesswanderer1

  10. JustHeather

    Great post! And one I quite agree with.
    I’m west coast American born and raised, but now living in Finland for the last 14 years. I think there could be another type of English: Natives who have lived in a foreign country too long that have adapted to the international/native of that country English. Some weeks/days my English goes very much downhill.

    As for Google translator or any other translator, I don’t think they will ever be great or perfect for bigger pieces of text as languages are living and they change to fit the day and culture they are in.

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  11. hm101mc

    Let me remove a myth about German–that the language has very long words very much like Sanskrit which has the same feature. Words in both these languages can be broken down into smaller intelligible parts. Yet people from from Germany and India try to assemble words that is peculiar to their mother tongue. People from India do a better job simply because it is a medium of instruction in Schools and it is an associate official language.

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  12. Pingback: The Three Types Of English (According To Me) | Chronicles Of John Doe

  13. Av

    interesting article and comments.
    I am from India. We have 28 main languages (not counting dialects). English is most commonly used across the nation. Now, it is not the same everywhere. Localized english is most common and we have trouble understanding friends from other states of the country when they speak the same sentence. Now you know the complexity we have internally – I’m only talking about languages now.
    I have lived in US for some time and now Live in Finland. I Travel all across Europe. I’ve spoken to a lot of Singaporeans and Australians and some from China too.

    I have seen quite a mish-mash of the language already.

    The lesson learnt – Listen carefully. You then realize that it is more to do with how they say what they say. The example from Spain is apt.

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  14. Pingback: The Three Types Of English (According To Me) | Adriana's Notebook

  15. Robert

    wow great article! has given me inspiration to write along the same lines but in context to india. You would just love the different types of english that we have……maybe it would take 3-4 articles for that.

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  16. Rachel

    Did you hear the joke about the German guy in the pub in England? His meal was taking a long time to arrive, so he asked the waitress, “When will I become a beef steak?”. My class – all either bilingual German/English speakers or native German with English as L2, except for me – found that hilarious.

    As for Google Translate, we have all long since resigned that to use as a dictionary and not as a translator, except when we are in need of laughs. The funniest thing I’ve got from it was trying to translate “pourriez-vous”. It came out as “Wilt thou?”. Which, technically, is perfect English… just English from over 500 years ago.

    One of the funniest languages I speak to translate directly in is Gaelic. Translating directly from Gaelic you end up with such things as, “Is the Gaelic at you?” (literally, ‘Do you speak Gaelic?’) and “The hunger is upon me!” (‘I’m hungry.’)

    As for native-speaker-level dialects… No, not all of them are mutually intelligible. Once, during a conversation, someone said, “If you get a group of Australians in a room together, no other English-speaker can understand them.” The funniest part was that everyone in that particularly room was speaking with thick Scottish accents, even broad Scots at times, which almost every other native English speaker would say is unintelligible…

    I generally think that I can understand most dialects of English (Australian with English parents, Scottish grandparents, and Kiwi cousins… I can speak at least four dialects, situationally, so it goes without saying). Then I went to the US, and… Well, let’s just say that in LA, I found it easier to ask someone to translate into Spanish than to try to understand the English. In Texas, I had a number of people tell me they couldn’t understand me (fast AND a strange accent!). I had to get my sister to “translate” everything said over the loudspeakers, everywhere. And I still have no idea what the guy at McDonald’s in Little Rock said to me, even after asking him to repeat it, but I’m pretty sure it was English.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Now you have me thinking I should use Google Translate MORE 😉
      The biggest problem I’ve had with American kids – they’ve not had sufficient exposure to British TV, and generally find it hard to understand my English.

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  17. archecotech

    Oh, I’ve been teaching Russians English for a year, it’s a whole different world. The two languages are polar opposites. Know I understand why we were put half way around the world from each other. We would always be fighting. Oops, guess we already are.

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  18. susanissima

    Hola lotc!

    Really enjoying your amusing posts. Your vocabulary is rich, your insights are engaging and I love the fact that you live in Spain, one of my favorite places on earth.

    I find the same kinds of issues that you address in this post when I’m in Spain speaking Mexican Spanish and my mind has to shift to, say, an Andalucian accent. It takes me a while, like when reading Shakespeare, to pick up on the beats, the pronunciation, etc. Different lobes need to be activated.

    Also, being once who lives in the far Northwest of the U.S., our accent is more Canadian than that of those who live lower and more easterly, so people (Americans) often ask us, “Hey, what country are you from?” We’re a fairly myopic country, as you probably know.

    Anyhow, thanks for liking my recent post. I look forward to many more of you delightful reads.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Aw, thanks! I enjoyed your owl post 😉
      I’m not sure how much I’d even understand of “real” Andalusian. I hate it when they replace the “s” in a word with a glottal stop(?) – it’s really ugly!

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  19. aiyshah2014

    Even though i am a native speaker from New Zealand, I think I am becoming more of an international language speaker, I guess this is because I’m surrounded constantly by non-native speakers. So much so that even when i go back to New Zealand, often i can’t understand what my own family members are saying, their turns of phrase, their strong accents….and their distinctive sense of humour that comes through their language. So that is my comment on this one….

    But what I really would like to say is how much I like this blog, Thank you, everything is so intelligently written and with great wit….keep it up.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I think what happens is that you lose cultural reference points once you stop living in a country… you don’t know what or who’s on TV, which politician dropped a right clanger, etc, and then you don’t get those kinds of jokes. I constantly have that problem with German(y), having moved away over two decades ago.

      Thanks for your kind words 🙂

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  20. mappingthepeace

    yep, definitely very familiar with the last category! it’s amazing how you can listen to someone speak for minutes, understand all the words individually and still have no idea what they’re talking about. but then i sometimes wonder how i sound when i speak spanish to native-spanish speakers…

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