One of the best things about speaking English is that, well, the world speaks English – as long as you’re doing “global” business and/or are in a tourist trap.
The latter was made abundantly clear on my recent trip to Venice.
I generally pride myself on having a few words to say in whatever the language is in the country I’m visiting in. I even know how to say a few things – sort of – in Gaelic, which is completely unnecessary, as everyone in Ireland speaks English. And is a complete waste of time, as the language is impenetrable. Plus the tape you learned off of is no doubt in a dialogue not spoke where you’re attempting to use it.
Anyway, in Italy, I had my phrase books and my ‘bongiornos’ already. And my sister Trish, having actually taken adult-ed Italian, one-upped me.
But pretty much everyone took one look at us and started speaking to us in English.
So our Italian speaking was pretty much limited to Grazie and Scusi.
Sure, I’d like to be fluent in another tongue, but, let’s face it, if you’re an American – awful and ugly American as it sounds – there’s really not all that much need. English has – so far, at least – won the pop cultural, economic, scientific, and technological battles. English is the language of all of the above.
Europeans are often held up as great paragons of linguistic virtue because so many of them speak multiple languages: their own, English, and often at least one other. But, let’s face, it. If you live in Europe and want to travel a bit, you’re probably going to cross a border into a different language zone. So if you live in Holland – population 16.8 million, putting it mid way between Pennsylvania and New York - and you want to travel somewhere else, that somewhere else is not likely to be Dutch speaking. (I guess there’s Aruba…) Whereas, if you live in Pennsylvania or New York, and you want to see something that looks and feels a lot different, you can go to Mississippi. Or Montana. Where everyone will speak English. If going to a different state meant speaking another language, guess what? More Americans would have another language.
So, while Americans may be lazy and self-absorbed, it actually makes sense that most of us are uni-lingual.
The assumption that the world speaks English in the same way is turning into a challenging one for global businesses, however.
A recent article I saw on BBC cited the cautionary tale of a non-native speaker who received an email from a native English speaker.
The message, written in English, was sent by a native speaker to a colleague for whom English was a second language. Unsure of the word, the recipient found two contradictory meanings in his dictionary. He acted on the wrong one.
Months later, senior management investigated why the project had flopped, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It all traced back to this one word,” says Chia Suan Chong, a UK-based communications skills and intercultural trainer, who didn't reveal the tricky word because it is highly industry-specific and possibly identifiable. “Things spiralled out of control because both parties were thinking the opposite.”(Source: BBC)
The result was a major financial loss.
I’m racking my brain trying to figure out what the word with contradictory meanings might have been. Alas, I came up empty. But, thanks to the miracle that is Internet search, I did find a list. Not that helpful, but interesting. Here are a few possibilities:
Finished: Completed, or ended or destroyed
Fix: To repair, or to castrate
Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat
Overlook: To supervise, or to neglect
Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee
Throw out: To dispose of, or to present for consideration
Whatever the word was, it was apparently an oopsa-doopsa. (And I can definitely see that castrating rather than fixing might have caused a big financial problem.)
When such misunderstandings happen, it’s usually the native speakers who are to blame. Ironically, they are worse at delivering their message than people who speak English as a second or third language, according to Chong.
“A lot of native speakers are happy that English has become the world’s global language. They feel they don’t have to spend time learning another language,” says Chong. “But… often you have a boardroom full of people from different countries communicating in English and all understanding each other and then suddenly the American or Brit walks into the room and nobody can understand them.”
I have experienced a variant of this phenomenon.
In France, I have actually had quite an understandable conversation in French – largely because the person I was speaking with was a native German speaker. Years ago, in Italy, I communicated quite easily in pidgin German with an Italian.
In both cases, we spoke slowly, with a limited vocabulary, and in one tense.
On the other hand, when we’re wagging your native tongue, it seems, we:
…often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture…In emails, [we] use baffling abbreviations such as ‘OOO’, instead of simply saying that they will be out of the office.
And, given our world dominance, it’s us native English speakers – Brits and Americans alike – that are “the world’s worst communicators.”
The good news?
Jean-Paul Nerriere has devised Globish — a new easier form of English, stripped down to 1,500 words and simple but standard grammar — as a tool.
Now that’s worth exploring.
Maybe by the next time I’m someplace “foreign”, I’ll be speaking fluent Gloish.
Ciao! (Or is it chow?)