Saturday 1 August 2020

Can you speak English?

One of my Polish friends became unemployed recently and started the process of signing on. She speaks good English. I would judge it to be intermediate to upper intermediate. The sort of level that a foreign student might have when beginning university. But she asked me for help with dealing with the benefits office.

I wondered what the problem could be, but soon discovered it. We put the call on the speaker phone so that we could both hear it. The first call had her speaking to someone from Yorkshire. I could understand it no bother at all, but Dorota could hardly understand a word. We went through a sort of pantomime where I gave a series of nods or shakes of the head to help her answer the questions.

It wasn’t that the person from Yorkshire had a particularly strong accent. It was simply that every sound she made was different from the standard form of English that is taught to foreigners. British people know all the accents of Britain and the varieties that are spoken around the world, but foreigners don’t.

On our next call we got a man from Liverpool. Again, Dorota understood almost nothing and the fact that she couldn’t understand made her panic, get flummoxed and speak worse than she usually does. Her confidence was shaken. The final call involved speaking to someone from Aberdeen. Dorota understood hardly a word even though she has been living in the area for a few years.

I was astonished that members of staff at various benefit offices could not in any way modify their accents to make it easier for a foreigner to understand, when it was clear that she could not. But then I began to realise that most British people cannot do this.

I speak a few foreign languages and realise that there is a difference between the standard form of the language and the various dialects and accents that are typically spoken in a country. I have never met a Russian who is unable to speak standard Russian with a neutral accent. The same goes for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. People may speak a regional variant of German, but they can universally speak standard German too.

I have been learning Polish since lockdown started as I wanted to achieve something during the pandemic and thought a new language would give me a new challenge. Polish is notoriously difficult. The spelling and some of the sounds are tricky, but a Russian speaker quickly discovers similarities. I have been making reasonable progress and can now take part in simple conversations.

But I can only understand standard Polish. If someone speaks with a regional accent or uses one of Poland’s dialects I am lost. But no one would speak to me like that. As soon as they heard that I was a foreigner speaking Polish they would do their best to make themselves understood. They would speak standard Polish.

Something has gone wrong with British education. I grew up speaking Doric, the local form of Scots spoken in Aberdeenshire. But even as a child I knew that this language would be incomprehensible to most other Scots, let alone to people from England. I therefore was taught to speak both Doric and standard English.

There was a time when all educated people in Britain learned to speak both standard English and whatever local variety of English that was spoken where they live, but this is something we have gradually lost.

Dorota spent learnt English in school and has lived and worked here for a few years. She has absolutely no trouble understanding me, and we can have a conversation on a good level. It follows then that she speaks English. Those people who she completely cannot understand, must therefore not be speaking English.

It is extraordinary to reflect then that vast numbers of British people do not speak English. They are simply unable to communicate in such a way that foreigner who has studied English to a fairly high level can understand.

One of the major advantages we have in being born in Britain is that we speak a language that the rest of the world learns and understands. How peculiar then that we insist on speaking it in such a way that they cannot understand it.

When Nicola Sturgeon gives her television briefings large numbers of foreigners will struggle to understand her. The sounds she makes are simply not those that are taught in standard English classes and at times are quite dissimilar. But Sturgeon speaks better English than most people in Britain. 

It is of course arbitrary to pick standard English as the correct form of English, but it is equally arbitrary to pick standard German, Italian, Russian or Polish. The fact that the Tuscan dialect was arbitrarily picked as standard Italian does lessen the usefulness of all Italians learning and being able to speak a language that each of them can understand and which foreign learners of Italian can understand also.

In Britain we gave up the idea that we should all be able to speak standard English because we mistook the idea that picking one standard dialect was arbitrary for the idea that all dialects of English ought to be treated as equal and that there should therefore be no standard at all. It is one further reason why we lack the unity of Poland. We lack a common language.

But when we read a newspaper, we do not see the words spelled as if they were spoken with a Scottish, Yorkshire or Welsh accent. We have standard written English with rules about spelling and grammar. But why should we have a standard written language, while we lack a standard spoken language. The spelling and the grammar after all follow the spoken language, not the other way around.

Just as it would be considered uneducated to write a job application in dialect, so too it should be a requirement for anyone working in a job that requires an education that the person can speak English well enough so that a foreigner with a good level of English can understand easily.

In Ireland primary school teachers must have an Irish language qualification, though it is unlikely they will ever speak Irish to anyone. In Britain on the other hand a vast proportion of the population cannot speak English even though they meet English speakers every day of their lives.