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English as an international language

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Talking to non-native speakers

We might think that it is not our responsibility to change the way we speak English when speaking to non-native speakers. Apart from the risk of being seen as arrogant (especially if we are speaking to them in their own country!) this position is not helpful when we want to communicate with each other as well as possible.

Essentially, you need to be willing to try and speak more carefully.

Consider some of these issues:

Speed

Most people find that speakers of other languages talk too fast. It is hard to hear each separate word. You probably sound the same - so slow down.

Intonation

In British English, we often ask questions, convey surprise, and more by changing the pitch or stress of some words.

Read these sentences aloud. Use stress and an upward (rising) tone on the bold part.

  • She lives in London.
  • She lives in London.
  • She lives in London.
  • She lives in London.
  • She lives in London.

Not all languages use intonation like this, which can make it really difficult for people to understand these nuances.

How could you make the above examples clearer by changing the structure of the sentences rather than the intonation?

Accent

Everybody has an accent.

  • What is your particular accent (e.g. white, educated, middle class, Yorkshire)?
  • How many people in the world speak with your particular accent?
  • How many speak with a Chinese accent?
  • Which accent (yours or a Chinese one) is used more around the world?
  • Which one might be more familiar to other speakers of English?

This video shows one American man attempting lots of accents.

Think about how you could modify your own accent to help people understand you.

Idioms

Some expressions in British English don't even make sense to native speakers.

How many people in Britain actually play or watch cricket? But in British English, we expect people to understand:

  • "close of play"
  • "being bowled over"

This video shows British English expressions which mention dairy products.

There are a lot.

Phrasal verbs

What does the word "get" mean in English?

Look at the uses of "get" in the paragraph below:

It took a few days for me to get over the illness, partly because when I called the surgery I couldn't get over to them how bad the symptoms were. Anyway, when I finally got up and got round to having a bath I felt well enough to get on with some work.

These expressions can be hard to understand. And most other languages do not use them.

Use another word or phrase instead.

Search the web for "phrasal verbs" - there are lots of videos about them.