The Language Paradox: Speak English, Can

ByAnsel Ashby

English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world; the most when native and non-native speakers are combined. It is the official language of the European Union, The United States, India, and many other countries throughout the world, in various slightly different forms. Recently the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, said that American English would prevail over other forms.

Speaking English is a good skill to have, American or otherwise.

But what about all the non-native English speakers? Some linguists now estimate that non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers by a ratio as high as 3:1. For every native born English speaker, three more people are taught English as a second language. Lucky for us, the native English speakers, I mean; we can travel nearly anywhere in the world and get along just fine. Undoubtedly, that’s one of the main causes of the U.S.’s deeply entrenched monolinguism.

So if everyone speaks English, why learn another language? Please, translate: “Dis Guy Singrish Sib Eh Powerful Sia.”

Any guesses? It means: This person’s Singlish is very good.

Okay, how about this: “Order That The Objects Continuen Infecting Your mystery, Please Not To Touch.” Or: “Coffee Give Birth to a Child Condition

The first example is Singlish. The commonly used pidgin English found widely in Singapore. Singlish loosely combines an English vocabulary with Mandarin sentence structures and syntax, not to mention a handful of words and phrases from Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.

The second two are examples of what is commonly called Engrish: signs, warnings, announcements, and other public messages translated into English from a second (usually Asian) language. I’m guessing the first one is a warning not to touch food or some other item to prevent infection. The second, again I'm guessing, is a warning that drinking coffee can potentially cause birth defects.

So yes, everyone speaks English, but do they speak the same English as you and me? Well, that depends a lot on the person. In Singapore, specifically, the government tries very hard to ensure that their population speaks proper, British English. It is taught in schools; Singlish is discouraged. And with the exception of cabbies and hawker centers, no Western English speaker would have any problem communicating with the locals. Most people speak passable to good English.

But what about China, Japan, Korea? How about India? Or any of the places where a non-native, non-fluent speaker teaches English as a second language?

While in China, I spoke to a young lady in a bar. She was educated, relatively well travelled (had travelled in and outside of China), and middle or upper-middle class. I speak no Chinese. At first, we could not communicate. And then one of us began writing on a piece of paper. Her written English was perfect. Over the course of 30 or 45 minutes, we had a complete conversation covering a variety of topics, utilizing complex and varied sentence structures, multiple tenses, and a significantly diverse vocabulary. She made one mistake in grammar and punctuation over the course of the entire conversation.

I wonder what her spoken English is like; it certainly isn’t even remotely similar to mine or any other native speaker’s.

Now many people have postulated that Chinese will soon overcome English as an international language. China is coming up in the world; 1.6 billion are native Chinese speakers. Both valid points, but until the Chinese adopt an alphabetic writing system, Chinese will simply be too difficult to become widely used. But then some 200-600 million Chinese are learning English. It just may not be the same as your English or my English – it’ll be much closer to a Japanese person’s English, or a Korean’s, even perhaps, a Ghanian’s.

Finally, I come to Business English. Business English is taught and spoken widely throughout the international business community. A Japanese and Brazilian company trying to do business: English. The same goes for just about any other combination of two countries, except, to a certain extent, when the two countries are from the same linguistically dominated region (South and Central America, the Middle East).

Interestingly enough, it is easier for two people who both know Business English to communicate (even outside of business settings) with each other than for a native speaker to communicate with someone who only knows Business English. Two business speakers have the same vocabulary, use the same constructions, and are less inclined towards regional variation in syntax and tone. The native speaker may understand perfectly, but the business speaker has no idea what the native speaker is saying.

So what does all this mean for our increasingly global world? What does it mean for all the native English speakers throughout the world? To be honest, I haven’t a clue, but it will be an exciting and interesting journey. English may prevail, but certainly not English as it’s currently conceived.

I won’t even get into British vs. American English … bloody Brits.

Photo Credit: Drab Makyo