“Sara, from Italy, is learning English because she looks forward to getting a job in Germany dealing with Asian international clients.”
The above sentence is heard more and more often as English is increasingly spoken in the absence of native speakers. Now, when native speakers do join the conversation, are they necessarily the best communicators in the global English setting?
Often enough, I have witnessed quite proficient international audiences struggling to understand certain English native speakers due to their word choice, accent, speed, or use of specific expressions and references.
1 billion speakers of English as a second language
With around 1 billion speakers of English as a second language, English is by far the most widely learned language in the world, more than tripling its runner-ups, Hindi and Standard Arabic, while being learned over five times as much as their followers, French, Mandarin Chinese and Indonesian. Interestingly, these 1 billion speakers of English as a second language (L2) also nearly triple the number of speakers of English as a first language (L1). Yes, there are other languages in similar situations, such as French, Indonesian, Thai, or Swahili. However, three factors set English learning apart as a global phenomenon: its absolute number of speakers, its L1/L2 ratio, and their geographic distribution. Not only are there huge amounts of speakers of English as a second language, but there are also many more of them than native speakers, and they are simply everywhere in the world.*
This international arena gives rise to many situations where L2 speakers use English as their lingua franca, often generating codes specific to those situations. These L2 speakers may have quite different English proficiency levels, but they all know enough specific vocabulary to communicate effectively in their shared setting. However, L1 speakers might find it hard to adapt and adhere to these narrower Englishes being used.
For instance, Anna, to whom I used to teach English, worked for a tech company in Manchester with both local and international staff. She was comfortable enough with her English in her professional environment. She could discuss strategic planning, consider systems to streamline resources and identify assets and liabilities.
She would attend the after-work meet-ups and she would talk about work-related issues and her everyday life with other international staff, yet she wouldn’t be comfortable enough to do the same with her local, native-speaking colleagues.
But why? She found that she missed a lot more of what the locals said. Very often, she wasn’t sure whether she hadn’t understood a word or she had just missed an obscure local reference she was unfamiliar with. It simply felt a lot more awkward to hang around them. It felt harder to show an interesting personality. Conversely, even though the international staff were a diverse lot with quite different English proficiencies, there was no awkwardness whatsoever. Both groups spoke English, yet they used completely different codes and operated on different levels of empathy.
Academy, expertise and formality
There are two factors at play here. Firstly, due to their range of proficiency levels, the international speakers may have used a narrower vocabulary with very precise and specific words only appearing in shared topics everyone knew a lot about. Instead, locals might have been using a completely different set of more informal, local, even slang-like vocabulary, and mixing familiar and unfamiliar topics seamlessly. Secondly, there may have been a greater awareness among the international speakers that their own idioms and personal and cultural references might simply not work in that setting. In the end, this kind of awareness and empathy is easier to learn from actually being an L2 speaker and having the opportunity to experience in both situations.
I mentioned that formal, professional or technical English and everyday local English can often use wholly different sets of vocabulary. But why do English L2 speakers tend to feel more comfortable with the former? Many possible reasons here.
One reason might be that English’s formal, scientific and technical vocabulary often uses Latin or Ancient Greek roots also present in these speakers’ L1 languages. Also, many neologisms in those languages are most likely borrowed from English. Additionally, speakers of English as a second language are likely to have a deeper command of the language in matters related to their fields of academic and professional expertise and, lastly, their experience in using English in a local native-speaking setting may be limited or simply non-existing.
While English grammar is generally easy and quite accessible to speakers of many different languages, which makes for a good international language, its extensive vocabulary and expressions can indeed become quite a challenge for second language users. Conversely, the narrower codes being used in international settings might be a challenge to native speakers.
Tomàs Genís Galofré,
Language Coach, Master’s Degree in TESL