Speaking Foreign

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.

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33 thoughts on “Speaking Foreign

  1. I think you nailed it all, for the most part at least.

    Accent is the trickiest part, though. In the US I knew an American professor of Russian Studies whose Russian was at least as good as of any native speaker – but I often had real trouble understanding what he was saying only because of his accent (he was a southerner, and interesting fellow).

    Still on accents, you are absolutely correct to say that native English speakers are very tolerant and patient with foreigners’ less-than-perfect English. But still, I often have Americans and Brits having trouble understanding me because of my accent that has never gone away after all these years, and probably never will. Such is life, and as long as no big egos are involved, it all works out in the end, including some good laughs 🙂

  2. “If somebody walks up to me in London and says “Where sant pow?””

    I was once stopped in Cambridge: after some consideration I realised that the chap was asking for directions to the nearest tube station.

    I have boasted, have I, that I was once mistaken for a genuine frog when bargaining in a flea-market in Paris? A proud moment: my girlfriend was mighty impressed.

    P.S. Why is it easier to haggle in French than in English?

  3. But still, I often have Americans and Brits having trouble understanding me because of my accent that has never gone away after all these years, and probably never will.

    Yes, Russian accents – like French accents – are either lost before age 10 or they remain with you forever. 😉

  4. I have boasted, have I, that I was once mistaken for a genuine frog when bargaining in a flea-market in Paris? A proud moment: my girlfriend was mighty impressed.

    That is impressive! Although chances are the person you were arguing with was about as French as you were. I have on several occasions found myself torturing some poor soul with my French only to find they are Polish or Ukrainian and a lot happier speaking in English.

    P.S. Why is it easier to haggle in French than in English?

    I’m not sure, but I’ve found I can argue quite effectively in French for one simple reason: I don’t know enough to lose my temper and start insulting the other person (which is what I do a lot in English when I realise I am wasting my time) or being sarcastic, and instead I am forced to repeat myself over and over in very simple terms as if I’m speaking to a child. This has the effect of infuriating the French person who I am arguing with.

  5. “although chances are the person you were arguing with was about as French as you were”: no – it was long, long before the wall came down. I suppose my triumph (I did tell you that I consider it a triumph, did I?) was because there was quite a lot of emphasis on oral French at my school: we not only had to, for example, take dictation – bloody demanding, that – but also to declaim passages of prose, recite poems, sing jolly chansons, and so on. By contrast my wife’s school had no emphasis on spoken French at all, so she’s still inhibited in speaking French. She speaks decent German though, and fragmentary Spanish and Italian.

  6. True, Tim – but 10 is probably a very general age cutoff. I moved from Russia to Israel when I was 14, and over the years lost my Russian accent almost entirely. Although to be fair, I was mispronouncing some sounds in Russian to begin with (what is known in Russia as “the Jewish accent”), which later actually fit quite well with their Hebrew pronunciations. In any case, my accent in English now is actually an Israeli one – it’s a right mess, I tell you 🙂

  7. I believe dearieme’s route leads in the right direction: make sure your child starts learning a target language early (six-seven, definitely before 10) and gets plenty of oral exercise. By 12-14, she should be able to express herself in a way intelligible to native speakers. She will have a chance to refine her accent later, especially if she has an ear for speech and is not entirely hopeless at mimicking (also essential to histrionics).

  8. Before I was 10, my only French lessons were in declaiming the old label on the HP sauce bottle. My patents tended to laugh and then teach me how to say it properly.

  9. When I was supervising projects in China I invested in a bunch of cassettes from Linguafone or somesuch. Arrived at the hotel in Beijing and all chuffed, announced my name and that I had a reservation. The young lady behind the counter asked, “What exactly are you trying to say?”
    Ah well, at least I got to keep the pretty little translators who described me as “Chubby but cute”. I was OK with that.

  10. I suppose my triumph (I did tell you that I consider it a triumph, did I?) was because there was quite a lot of emphasis on oral French at my school: we not only had to, for example, take dictation – bloody demanding, that – but also to declaim passages of prose, recite poems, sing jolly chansons, and so on.

    So we did know how to teach foreign languages at some point, then? I suppose like everything else, we gave up on it because it was all a bit difficult.

  11. I moved from Russia to Israel when I was 14, and over the years lost my Russian accent almost entirely.

    Can we ask the non-Russians? 😉

  12. make sure your child starts learning a target language early (six-seven, definitely before 10) and gets plenty of oral exercise.

    Yes, this seems to be how the children of expats learn. Colleague of mine is Kazakh, her 12 year old daughter speaks with the “international” American accent and corrects her mother’s English.

  13. I did, Tim – or rather, I was (and still am) told by them without asking, as they keep being amazed at my being from Russia 🙂 But that’s my accent in Hebrew – again, it may be entirely different in English.

  14. “So we did know how to teach foreign languages at some point, then?” If by “we” you mean the Scottish schools, yes.

  15. “I suppose like everything else, we gave up on it because it was all a bit difficult.” Also, perhaps, because being able to speak French, and understand spoken French, didn’t much matter in the exams. Happily my school wasn’t obsessed about grinding out every last mark in the exams. Anyway, ensuring that French was much more palatable to us than Latin (my benchmark for a bloody awful Learning Experience) may in the end have got us more marks anyway, but such a subtle argument wouldn’t appeal to the managerialist cast of mind.

  16. To my ears, Alisa is fluent in English. I don’t find her remotely difficult to understand, and she obviously doesn’t have any difficulty following me (or other English speakers). She speaks English with a sort of generic “English is probably not her first language and she has been around a bit” quality about it, but so do lots of people. I don’t think her accent is obviously Russian, either, in truth. It’s one of those various things mixed together accents.

    This is just a thought, but one thing that French and Russian may have in common – coming from someone who speaks neither – is that both languages have a single variant with the highest prestige – the language of educated people in Paris and Moscow respectively. As a consequence the languages might be particularly prone to the idea that one way is “right” and there are no other ways that you should speak. All languages have low and high prestige variants, but English has multiple high prestige variants that are different, and even language snobs know this and know that they have to learn to understand and make understood variants other than their own. I’d be interested in knowing the situation in Spanish, which probably has even more high prestige variants than English does.

  17. This is just a thought, but one thing that French and Russian may have in common coming from someone who speaks neither – is that both languages have a single variant with the highest prestige – the language of educated people in Paris and Moscow respectively.

    Ooh God no, that would be St. Petersburg! But I suspect the effect you describe, if it exists in Russia (and I think it does, although not to the same extent as in France), would not put much difference between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

  18. But that’s my accent in Hebrew – again, it may be entirely different in English.

    I’d have no idea what that sounds like, so I’m going to have to go on Michael’s description. 🙂

  19. Ooh God no, that would be St. Petersburg!

    Tim beat me to it 🙂 It’s funny, since the reason for this – at least the way I see it – is that historically St. Petersburg was considered less Russian and more worldly than Moscow. IOW, it is the Moscow variant of the language that is supposed to be more Russian-like, and so more correct. St. Petersburg used to be the capital for a couple of centuries, and so that’s where the educated aristocracy was concentrated – but chances are that those people spoke French more often than they spoke Russian.

  20. Learning Bulgarian 20 years ago I often came across Bulgarians who had never heard a foreigner trying to speak Bulgarian. Some responded by simply refusing to understand anything I said. I liked the ones who asked me in Bulgarian “What part of the Soviet Union do you come from ?” Or “Are you from Yugoslavia ?”

  21. Once upon a time when I lived up in Silicon(e) Valley I was asked to interpret/referee the argument between the lead HW dev and lead SW dev on a project that was in trouble. The HW bod was chinese, the SW one Indian and when they got heated they seemed incapable of producing English that the other one (or any of the Americans in the room) could understand. Turned out I could understand both so I was told to “translate”.

  22. It’s funny, since the reason for this – at least the way I see it – is that historically St. Petersburg was considered less Russian and more worldly than Moscow.

    From my experience with St. Petersburgians, they believe that they are not really Russians and are more Europeans, but nevertheless represent the pinnacle of all things Russian. And Moscow is a village different only from a collection of shacks in Siberia by virtue of its size, inhabited only by peasants who grunt and swear at each other. 🙂

  23. I studied in England with a South African whose family emigrated to Cape Town in the early 1970s. (Heaven knows why, but that’s a different story). He spoke German at home with his family, and grew up speaking perfectly fluent German with an accent that suggested that he came from Hamburg. In his mid twenties, he visited Germany for the first time as an adult. He found himself unfamiliar with little details of life, but he sounded like a local. He found that Germans would not consider the idea that he was not a local, and this turned out to be very difficult. If he (say) asked how the train ticketing system worked, he would get responses along the lines of “What? Are you stupid?” rather than help. A fluent an apparently native German speaker who was not in fact German was not conceivable, so after a while he started asking such questions in English.

  24. We once took an Italian night class, one member of which was conspicuously Italian in name and appearance. He’d grown up here and spoke not a word of his grandparents’ language. When he took an Italian holiday he had been harangued for pretending not to speak Italian, hence his attendance at our class. He dropped out pretty quickly, having been appalled to learn that nouns could have different genders.

  25. An American I knew was visiting Italy, and on one of the many occasions when he asked a local ‘Do you speak English?’, the guy replied with a big smile: ‘No. Do you speak Italian? 😀 ‘ It made me think 🙂

  26. I remember going through a strange phase when living in Germany. My spoken German suddenly got a lot better* but I began to find it harder to understand other people.

    I realised this was because my German was now fluent enough that the German speakers I spoke to didn’t feel the need to speak slowly or simplify things when speaking to me – they assumed a higher level of competency and no longer made the allowances they had previously

    * I find you tend to plateau for a while and then suddenly improve, then plateau again – brain rewiring itself?.

  27. Chris,

    I’ve noticed a similar thing: I speak languages better than I understand them, and people judge my understanding ability on how well I speak it. So I end up saying something fairly complex, and having no idea what they’re saying in return.

    I find you tend to plateau for a while and then suddenly improve, then plateau again – brain rewiring itself?.

    This appears to be the case for learning anything: languages, the guitar, skiing.

  28. You are spot on Tim, lots of interesting comments.

    Speaking of mixed accents, language also moves on. My parents returned to their homeland after 35 years on a vacation & their ex countrymen found their language quaint – a time capsule from the early 1950’s. This was the same ‘mother tongue’ they taught me. I got a lot of grief over my phrases even on top of the atrocious Okka accent.

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