Tuesday 13 July 2010

English as it is spoke

By Richard Morley.

Since I have lived here I have had some amazing, interesting and funny conversations with some wonderful Spaniards. By necessity, because my Spanish is abysmal, these witty, pithy, marvellously amusing chats have been in English. We have discussed science, politics, the existence of God, and that most vexing of questions, why do women like to buy shoes? Yet nearly all of these wonderfully erudite Spaniards will apologise about their English.

I remember a student at one the of the English villages I attend bemoaning well into the wee small hours of the morning of her problems with the English language. At around 2am I said, “Bxxxxxx, you have been telling me that you cannot speak good English – in good English”. Indeed, when I can explain something in as fluent Spanish as the English she used that night, I will be ecstatic”.

That is not to say her use of my language was fault free. Far from it. But she managed to explain all her doubts and problems with English – and I understood everything she said. And also, she understood what I said.

Recently a friend who has been studying a particularly difficult course in something I have no hope in understanding phoned me to ask about the English Speaking Group I help run on Friday evenings. Her course had been all in Spanish and now with the diploma in hand had decided to reacquaint herself with English. She had found her old grammar and idiom lists from the school where she had obtained a Master’s Degree in English and complained to me that she had forgotten so much.

She told me this in a ten minute telephone call conducted in almost flawless English!

Mxxxxx had recently returned from an international conference in Germany. The lingua franca used at meetings like these is invariably English. I have known Mxxxxx for nearly five years and know her English to be of a good level. My test for this is whether I make concessions in my speech for her. Do I enunciate over-clearly? Do I speak slower than normal? Do I choose my words carefully? With her the answer is, no. I also know she has recently delivered an excellent English presentation in Brussels. So why was she complaining to me of her inability to understand other delegates at the conference. “My English is terrible”, she moaned fluently.

I have a small confession to make. As a native English speaker, reasonably well educated and, I like to think, well read, I sometimes have to look up English words I don’t understand in the dictionary. Last year, at one of the English villages, I met a man from South Carolina. He, like me, is a native English speaker. Yet all week long I was constantly asking him to repeat what he said because I either didn’t understand his accent or he was using English is a way with which I was unfamiliar.

Was this his fault, my fault, or no one’s fault? The answer is the last. We both spoke our version of English. The Spanish students of the week were quite amused by our mutual incomprehension and feeling obviously relieved that their inability to understand this man shared by another English speaker.

So why should the linguistic world of those who have English as a second language be any different? Like the gentleman from South Carolina and myself it depends on where you learn your English, and, from whom. Even here in Spain, students learning English could have teachers that hail from every part of the English speaking world. Those students will become familiar with the accent and word usage of their teachers. And I know English teachers here in Madrid that I find difficult to understand.

I flippantly examined this problem in a post last year and, in truth, I worry about the English received by students of one particular teacher I have met here whose accent is definitely not “mainstream”.

However, in common with many people around the world, I have learned a lot of my Spanish from the podcasts of a Scot – and I recommend them whole-heartedly. So the differing accents of Teachers of English as a Second Language should not really matter. With diligence, all their students will master the language.

But when those students get together, will the English they speak be similar enough for them to comprehend each other?

I occasionally meet with another guirri who is also learning Spanish. Once, over a long lunch, we thought it world be a good idea to practise our (lack of) language skills, but it soon became clear that we had a different vocabulary. The conversation became peppered with pauses while we explained “our” strange new words to each other.

And that, I suspect, is what my Spanish acquaintances are going through. It’s not that they don’t have a perfectly good level of English. It’s because they don’t have the same English.

Now, out there in the business world is an English substitute. It’s called “globish” and has been described as the “world dialect of the third millennium”. It consists of around one thousand five hundred English words that is it thought that all Speakers of English as a Second Language should know and hence act as a reduced vocabulary lingua franca. There have a been a number of articles written about it, including the article in last month’s El País that first brought it to my notice.

Those one thousand five hundred words would give anyone a useful vocabulary, but I am not convinced Globish is the solution. In the words of the song, “It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it”. Which might well depend on who taught you. I have three lovely people who seem to have taken on the responsibility for improving my Spanish, but they don’t pronounce Spanish the same way and one will correct an error in my speech deemed acceptable by the others.

Spain has a television channel devoted to teaching English. The main presenter, Richard Vaughan, who owns the channel, is from Texas. There are other teachers from quite diverse parts of the English speaking world and there have been times when I have shouted at the screen, screaming, “No, it’s NOT pronounced like that!”

But really, that’s only my south eastern England opinion talking. The guy from South Carolina mentioned above probably does not have neighbours and colleagues asking him to clarify. And I know that some have a problem with me. I also know an English teacher here from the south of England who I think speaks clearly and yet some Spaniards have told me they have a problem with her accent.

I truly think that with many learners of English the problem is not one of mastery of the language, it’s one of confidence. There is also a difference of opinion about what it means to be “Bilingual”. To me the word describes a person who can competently converse in two languages. Many language schools here promise to make their students bilingual and, given the diligence of the student, they succeed – in my definition of the word. But many Spaniards who reach this level do not think themselves bilingual because they do not speak with a native accent, regardless from where that accent is meant to derive. Consequently, their confidence in using English is, wrongly in my opinion, low.

Here is a home truth: Unless you started learning from native speakers at a very young age you will never have a perfect native accent. If you learnt your English from a non-native after the age of eleven, the most you should strive for is clarity. You will never speak like the Queen of England, or me! So, don’t worry if you don’t!

Consider this definition of my language: A series of noises intelligible to speakers of the English language. That’s all any language is, if you substitute the word “English”; A series of noises. Once the noises have meaning, you can speak the language. I know two Spanish ladies, and they will recognise themselves from this description, who have amazing discussions in fast paced English and then complain to me that that are not confident with the language. They are nuts!

What they should realise is not that what they don’t have is a good level of English, but a non-agreement of learned vocabulary. Familiarity with Globish would be a start, but not the solution because the second thing for them to realise is that any native English speaker they talk with will naturally have a far larger vocabulary than that listed fifteen hundred. In the same way that any ten year old Spanish child has a larger Spanish vocabulary than me.

Having a lesser number of words in your mental dictionary does not make you stupid. (And incidentally, native English speakers having a conversation with a Speaker of English as a Second Language should realise that and choose their words accordingly. Because native English Speakers are so good at foreign languages, aren’t you – NOT!) It just means that until you learn the meanings of these unknown noises, you have a gap in you vocabulary. I have been told of English language conference calls where all the second language speakers understand each other and not the one English speaking native. And they think it’s their fault. The native should try harder. (And try to learn another language if he/she is a Brit or American, just to experience a little empathy!)
Conference Call Confusion

Of course there is nothing wrong with increasing your vocabulary. Indeed, it is devoutly to be wished, even in your native tongue. But just because someone knows a word you don't doesn’t make you stupid.

I take great pride in something two of my students have remarked to me recently. One, after attending an international conference, proudly told me he had been congratulated on his English, while another, working for a multi-national reported that a visitor from head office in the US commented how much her English had improved. I like to think I have had a small part in their progress, but they are both determined to succeed, so the credit is theirs. The second one, incidentally, on a return from delivering a presentation, in English, to the US branch of the company, did remark that she had experienced a problem with the natives, but that once she had asked for clarification, (ie, say it simpler without US football/baseball metaphors and obscure Americanisms), had understood nearly everything.

Spain is a country that realises the importance of needing English to do business. Without that skill, jobs in international companies are scarce. Many have it, really you do! You speak every day on the telephone to other countries, you send and receive e-mails, you negotiate and buy and sell – all in English. You are cleverer and more skilled than you realise.

You make me jealous!

I am well aware the title of this post is ungrammatical. It comes from an old quotation.


  1. Interesting read! I'm headed to Madrid this fall to teach English, so I eagerly await running into these situations.

  2. Richard, very intersting read, Thanks. I'm in USA in the final step of my long trip to try to understand your language. As you say I think I don't understand pretty well but I can tell now I'm able to read and writte (as now I'm doing) and I can understand pretty well ... and one year ago I coudn't do it so well. I'll follow your blog to try and practice more.

  3. Richard: Was ist los? Wo haben sie English gelernt? In America, it is extremely rare to use learnt; rather we use learned, pronounced in one syllable as the past tense of the verb or two syllables as the adjective for a an erudite wordsmith like you. Keep up the wonderful posts. This one is right on - I am emailing now with a Spaniard discussing in English the nuances of such esoteric topics as Arizona's new immigration law and Spain's Constitutional Court ruling on Catalunya's "estatut"; she thinks she does not speak English well.

  4. You've inspired me to write a blog post with my own favourite theory on the matter


  5. I am indebted to my facebook friend, Adam Wolf, for this quotation which will go someway to reinforcing what I wrote above: “My vocabulary isn't very good. I have to keep looking up words in the dictionary.” - Gabriel García Márquez (Nobel Prize-winning author, journalist)

  6. Last comment looks like spam (the Esperanto ones stop juuuuuuust short of spam, but I still delete them as basically off topic)

  7. @Alex: For me language means "communication". That might be obvious, but of someone thinks that esperanto could be used to universally communicate, then good for him. Personally I think that a universal language should be easy to learn, which Esperanto is demonstrably not. For me, the lingua-franca of East Africa, "Up-Country" or "Kitchen" swahili would be the one to chose. I learnt it in six weeks to conversational standard - and forgot almost as quickly when I left due to never using it again!
    But I will allow Brian to have his opinion.
    If Kashifi wants to facilitate communication with his translation services then I can put up with that. It's the ads for sexual devices and potions I expunge.

  8. I call it International English, i.e, English spoken by non-natives.

  9. Have you heard of the term ‘Neutral Accent’? This is not learning to speak with a British, Australian, or American accent, but with an accent that is easily understood by all. If people have trouble understanding you when you speak English, you might want to try some accent reduction training.

    Take a look at the following site:

    They also have a great links page for further practice/information:

  10. good and related view for this topic and i also like this