Using English Abroad Without Embarrassment

Richard Chalmers

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"Do you speak English?" is possibly one of the most asked questions by English speakers in foreign countries. As an expatriate teaching English in Spain, it's a question I have been embarrassed to hear countless times. I say embarrassed because the arrogance of native English speakers can often be embarrassing.

The sun eventually set on the British Empire, but the Empire's most lasting legacy is that English has become the lingua franca of the whole world. Many Germans, French, Dutch and Norwegians, to name a few, speak one or more languages in addition to their native tongue, with English being the most popular. So too in China or Japan you will not have trouble finding someone who can speak English.

So while the rest of the world is busy learning English, native English speakers do not feel any pressing need to learn another language. They correctly assume that wherever they go in the world someone will be able speak English. Many, however, arrogantly and incorrectly assume that everyone speaks English, or damn well ought to.

Now after his name, what a man most values is his language. When the English speaker arrogantly refuses to have anything to do with another language he inadvertently insults and belittles not only his host country's language, but by extension its culture and its values.

Luckily there are some things the wary traveller can do to minimise the harm of being too arrogant to learn another language.

  • Speak slowly
    At normal speeds many words in English appear to disappear. In the question, “What are you going to do?" the “are you" and the “to" get swallowed up by the words around them and we hear, “Whatcha gonna do?" A non-native English speaker hears an incomprehensible babble. By speaking slower than usual your words are less likely to remain distinct.

  • Do not speak louder than normal
    Not only English speakers, but speakers of all languages hold to the belief that if something said is not understood, shouting it will somehow make it more comprehensible. This is not only false reasoning, but it is very annoying, too.

  • Be selective with your vocabulary
    Nobody knows the true number, but there are estimated to be at least 250,000 distinct English words. Shakespeare used a vocabulary of 29,066 different words in his complete works, while a native English speaker has a vocabulary of between 4000 to 20,000 words. A non-native English speaker will have a functional core vocabulary of around 500 to 1000 common words. Do not say, “famished" when “hungry" will do, or “metropolis" when you can say “city".

  • Use simple sentence constructions
    Direct is better than indirect. “Where is the cathedral?" is much easier to understand than, “Would you mind telling me how I can find the cathedral?" Active is better than passive. “A thief stole my wallet, " is easier to understand than, “My wallet's been stolen by a thief. "

  • Do not use phrasal verbs
    Phrasal verbs are made up of a verb and an adverb or preposition. “Eat up", “get in" and “look for" are examples. Native English speakers use them all the time, but non-native speakers find them difficult at best and incomprehensible at worst. Try to find a synonym instead. Your listener will better understand “eat", “enter" and “find".

  • Learn key phrases in your host country's language
    “Thank you" may be so familiar to you that you wrongly assume it will be familiar the world over, but it may be as incomprehensible to your listener as “Dhanyawaad" in Gujarati, or “Khawp khun" in Thai might be to you. Some of the key phrases to learn are, “hello", “goodbye", “thank you", “no", “yes", “please", “how do you say?" and “what is this?". Numbers one to ten are also valuable.

  • Do not speak in English with an affected accent of your host country
    Like shouting, saying something in English with a strong French accent does not make what you say any more comprehensible to your French listener. The same goes for all other accents.

  • Ask questions about your host country's language
    Make it obvious you are trying and eager to learn. If you show that you are willing to learn, and have taken the trouble to learn a few phrases you will have shown respect for your host, their country and their culture. Having earned the respect of your host they will respect you.

Ignore the advice and continue to rely on shouting “Do you speak English?" with the local accent and you will continue to be an object of pity or revilement to your foreign cousins. Take heed of the advice and your communication difficulties should decrease.

Lingua Spectrum is a site in English and Spanish offering free language lessons, language games, quotations and much more. Visual Crosswords have been developed to help learners better memorise key vocabulary.


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