Communicating across borders
The heading may seem like something of a non sequitur, but in an international context, native speakers of English can often find it harder to make themselves understood in English than non-native speakers.
I was recently hired to interpret at a meeting attended by two financial consultants from South Africa and Danish/ German tax experts. As it turned out, all the Danes and Germans attending the meeting spoke excellent English, and it quickly became clear that my role would be to help in the event of problems with technical terms. However, I had very little to do in this regard until the term ‘daughter company’ was used. All the non-native speakers had no problem understanding this as ‘subsidiary’ – they all understood this literal translation from the Danish “datterselskab” and the German “Tochtergesellschaft” – but the South Africans needed help. Apart from this, everyone understood the technical terms without difficulty.
As the meeting progressed, it became clear that my assistance was mainly required because the South Africans spoke as if they were talking to fellow nationals. They simply neglected to take into account that they were in a global English setting and not a South African English setting. This became evident in a number of ways. Firstly, it took time for them to slow down a little; their South African accent was unfamiliar to the Danes and the Germans, who needed a little time adjusting to this new accent. Secondly, the South Africans used many everyday idioms such as ‘sailing close to the wind’ that the non-native speakers simply didn’t know. And like many South Africans, they used ‘is it?’ as an exclamation like ‘really?’, which was very puzzling to the Danes and Germans. Finally, the South Africans tended to dominate the conversation as they didn’t allow time for the non-native speakers to digest comments and formulate their replies.
So even though I was originally approached with an enquiry to act as an interpreter at this international meeting, in reality my job was not to act as an interpreter between two or three languages, it was to ‘translate’ from English into English – into global English.
By chance, on returning to the office, my colleagues were discussing this very issue, as they had come across an article about how many native English speakers fail to recognise the difference between ‘real English’ and global English – and as a consequence risk missing out on business opportunities abroad. It seems that my experiences with the South Africans are fairly commonplace.
So the next time you’re in a meeting with a native speaker of English and have trouble understanding what your counterpart is saying, perhaps it’s not your own English that needs improving, but rather the international communication skills of the native speaker. Or GlobalCompetence as we call it.