A few months ago, somebody in the comments at Tim Worstall’s blog made the observation that one of the strong points of the English language is that people who speak it very badly can still be understood. I don’t know if this is inherent in the language itself, but one thing is for sure: most native English speakers, especially those who live outside their native country, are used to hearing English which, to put it charitably, is less than perfect.
This comment coincided with a period when, for the first time in a decade, I found people could not understand my Russian (I am still learning it, and am better than I have ever been). Two of my collagues – both native Russian speakers – seemed to grimace, laugh, and otherwise not understand me when I spoke, and corrected me halfway through my first sentence each time I tried. I found this offputting to the point that I quit trying, and spoke to them in English instead. I also struggled to understand their Russian, as they used words with which I was not familiar. This latter one didn’t surprise me so much because I have always struggled to understand Russian (I speak it much better than I understand, whereas for most people it is the opposite), but the former bothered me a lot. I had no trouble being understood in Sakhalin, or during the trip I took to Shymkent in Kazakhstan last October. Then at the start of this summer I discovered one of the interns in the office was from Tatarstan, and spoke to her exclusively in Russian (until she started sharing an office with a French girl, and it would have been rude to continue). She didn’t seem to have much trouble understanding me, and it got me curious as to why I struggled with the others.
What I think has happened is this. Without realising it, I have gotten very good at deciphering appalling English spoken in accents which sound like fingernails down a blackboard. I did live in Liverpool for a year, after all. In a regular week I will hear English spoken by French, Thais, Russians, Malaysians, Indonesians, Venezuelans, Jamaicans, Kazakhs, Indians, and Nigerians whose English ability ranges from extremely good to a dozen words. Add in the accents and pronunciation, and the range which I can decipher is pretty wide.
It occurred to me that other nationalities might not have this skill. Russians, for example, are not likely to be very exposed to novices mangling their language, especially if they are educated and live in Moscow. The worst they will hear on a regular basis are the rather odd grammatical constructs of Central Asians and Caucasians, who they can nevertheless understand perfectly well. Parisian waiters might have enough exposure to appalling foreign accents ordering food and drink in French, but a typical resident of Bordeaux won’t be bombarded with the range of accents and abilities that a Mancunion will be. There is probably therefore a level of accuracy which is required to be understood in any language, and this will differ between languages. With English, the accuracy is very low. If somebody walks up to me in London and says “Where sant pow?” I’ll be able to guess he’s asking for St. Paul’s. In French he’ll need to be a lot more accurate, especially if the person he’s asking is some random resident (as opposed to somebody exposed to foreign tourists like a tour guide).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that the worse the natives speak their own language, the easier they find understanding foreigners. The Russian spoken in Sakhalin is rougher than it is in St. Petersburg, but people there had no problem understanding me. The language spoken in Shymkent (or, more accurately, a tiny Uzbek village an hour away) was a confusing mix of Russian and Uzbek with some Arabic thrown in and delivered in grunts through rows of shiny golden teeth with a cigarette hanging out the side of the mouth. Yet these lot understood me just fine. It could be that, not demanding linguistic perfection amongst themselves, they don’t expect it from foreigners either.
Another difference is that those who don’t speak the language of the foreigner will make a much greater effort to understand than somebody who knows they can (somewhat contemptuously) demand that they “say it in English”. When there is only one common language, the foreigner’s garbled syntax and odd placement of accents is good enough. One of the reasons English speakers make an effort to understand foreigners is the uncomfortable knowledge that a conversation in any other language would be a complete non-starter. I have noticed that the French and Russians who cannot speak English work hard to understand what I am saying; those who speak English, less so.
When speaking to educated Russians or French, who know English well, one finds the desire to correct can sometimes make conversation impossible. Corrections are fine if a word is obviously wrong, or the mistake common and repeated. Halting somebody mid-sentence to correct a pronunciation is usually unhelpful, and it would be better to let the person continue. Some will argue – and they do – that the correct placing of the accent is vital for people to know what the speaker means, but context plays that role and if I stopped everyone I interact with every time they mispronounced words in English I’d barely get past good morning: in France, I am known as Teem-o-tee.
For all the complaints of native English speakers not modifying their speech to suit foreign ears, at least they don’t, by and large, insist the foreigners reach 80-90% accuracy before they make any attempt to understand what’s being said. We’re used to hearing mistakes, and let them slide. There are fewer things more infuriating than trying to speak to somebody in a foreign language and have them tell you, in English, that they don’t understand because you’ve placed the stress on the wrong part of the word or pronounced a letter which is supposed to be silent. Or telling you, in a conversation which is taking place for strictly practical purposes, that “this other word would be better” even if the one you used was perfectly adequate to be understood (this is particularly true of Russian, which tends to have words with far more specific usage than English or French: just look at how Russian deals with “to go”, for example). I don’t care if a foreigner “takes” somebody from the airport instead of picking them up: I know what they mean. I don’t care if they “go to the shower” instead of taking a shower. I wish others would grant me the same leeway.