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The fear of the native speaker

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Jon Naunton is a freelance teacher and materials writer. He is co-author of Business Result, and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series. This post, originally published in Dialogue Magazine, explores why non-native speakers are often nervous about conversing with native speakers.

Two people looking nervous

Those of us who have taught foreign execs learn early on that they would far rather speak English with other non-native speakers than with an English person, or – heaven forbid – an American.

Executives with status and responsible positions in international companies often dread encounters with mother tongue speakers that leave them feeling confused, infantilized and at a disadvantage. These two stories may help to explain why.

I live near a small town in France that attracts its fair share of tourists. Over the summer I was in the newsagents when a man in a blazer and shorts approached the counter. ‘Have you got my copy of the Daily Mail?’ he barked. ‘You said you’d keep it to one side.’ The shopkeeper looked at him blankly. ‘My Daily Mail!’ the visitor continued in a slowly enunciated bellow. ‘Have – you – kept – it – back – for – me?’ When the shopkeeper shrugged helplessly, Daily Mail man turned around, muttering to himself, and left.

Recently at our local airport, blessed by Ryan Air, I met an English aeronautical engineer seconded to a British owned French subsidiary. In the four years that he had been there his wife had picked up quite a bit of French but I had to contain my surprise when I heard him order lunch. His French was, at best, basic. Linguistically speaking, his knuckles were scraping the ground. I was left wondering how he got by with his French colleagues.

Now, I know there is a danger in generalizing from the particular, but I won’t let it stop me. I would argue that Daily Mail man and airport man are fairly representative of how the English perform in other tongues. The use of English as a lingua franca has made us lazy, and Daily Mail man would have been raised in the conviction that it was his God-given right to be understood wherever he trod on foreign soil.

Yet in my opinion, their lack of ease in French goes deeper than either consideration, and has a lot to do with how foreign languages are taught in England. Part of the problem is to do with time – language lessons in England receive far fewer classroom hours than most other EU countries, and it is possible to drop a foreign language at the tender age of fourteen. It doesn’t matter whether it is a sport, a musical instrument or any other skill including languages – you have to put in the hours to achieve a decent level. Time and practice are crucial.

The next problem is to do with expectations. When my nephew started French at secondary school, his homework for week one was to learn numbers one to five. For week two it was six to ten. As part of an exciting school project the kids in his class were supposed to create a French market by drawing cards of fruit and vegetables. My nephew’s task was to draw a big pile of plums – prunes in French – which he duly did. I am certain that he will never forget the word for plum but I wonder if his time could have been – excuse the pun – more fruitfully employed. Nevertheless, on parents’ evening the class’s handiwork was displayed as a reminder of the school’s commitment to excellence in foreign languages.

The net result is that the average English person has such a poor grasp of what it is to tussle with a language that he cannot even begin to comprehend where the difficulty lies when he runs into communication problems. Even when English is used as a lingua franca the native speaker can get into trouble. He is less able to modify his language to accommodate the language level of the person he is trying to communicate with. Once he has received the signal that the other person speaks some English no further effort is made to modify or ‘grade’ his language. This behaviour, wrongly classified as arrogance, is due to benign indifference or being oblivious of any problem in the first place.

All this may go to show why most non-native speakers are happier communicating with English as their common language than having to cope with an unaccommodating monoglot who simply can’t recognize the problem. I sympathize with the reluctance of some EU members (notably France) of adopting English as the principal language of Brussels and Strasbourg, thereby reducing the annual billion Euro interpreting and translating bill. Were this to happen it might confirm the attitude of the English to learning other languages and make matters even worse.

What do you prefer – communicating in English with native or non-native speakers? Share your thoughts below.

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2 thoughts on “The fear of the native speaker

  1. From my experience (I’m not native English) it’s even harder for those who know a language (any language) better than the person he has communication with to communicate in this language, let alone to be a native speaker. Cause you may use words ir expressions another person has never heard of. You’ve got to make an effort.

    Another thing – you have to admit that French people initially are not very keen to learn English. Go to a far smaller country and you’ll be surprised by the fact that native English cannot learn local language properly cause everyone is thrilled at the opportunity to talk to a native. ))

  2. I prefer to speak to native or non native speakers who are open minded and with the ability to listen and willing to communicate………it’s true that English native speakers tend to be lazy and don’t make an effort to undestand not even interact to someone at a lower language level but it’s also true that there are lots of non native speakers who enjoy correcting or finding language learners’ mistakes…… hurray!! to all the non native English teachers who we dedicate quite a lot of time to keep our language skills fluent……..

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