The ongoing conversation about English's domination as the international lingua franca can sometimes feel extremely repetitive. It is true that the ascendancy of English may be founded first in British imperialism, and then in its upstart offspring, American imperialism1. However, to state that today non-English-speakers learn English purely to communicate with Americans and Brits is to miss a large part of the point.

As I have written before, English today is the common language that people from different backgrounds use to talk to each other - whether or not there is a native English speaker present! In fact, I have seen native English speakers fail to communicate any better than people with rudimentary English. Indeed, I have frequently seen them communicate worse than those for whom English is a second language.

Why does this happen? Surely native speakers should have an advantage when communicating in their own language?

Actually, that facility may be hindering rather than helping. Native English speakers will use idiom and cultural references that foreigners may not be familiar with, while someone speaking English as a second language is likely to restrict themselves to vocabulary and phrasing that are shared by their audience.

I have seen this mechanism play out many times. A native speaker talking to a mixed audience of native and non-native speakers may make some reference or use some phrase that is perfectly clear and familiar to the other native speakers - but completely loses the non-native-speaker part of the audience. They might say that something is a "red herring", or that they aim to "get to second base" on something - simple verbal shorthand to them, but concepts that require a lot of unpacking to an audience that is not familiar with those phrases. Both are real examples I have heard used in international business meetings, and that I have had to help local colleagues understand.

In fact, that second example illustrates the cultural aspects of language use. The idiom of "getting to second base" comes originally from baseball, but mutated into sexual slang for "making progress" with one's date. Both are peculiarly American forms, and might not be especially familiar even to a British audience, except possibly from films.

It is a good idea in general to keep your audience in mind when speaking (or writing!). On top of the immediate benefits of making your message easier to follow, it is also a good way to clarify your own thinking. Concepts come across better when they do not rely on clichés and received phrasing - even when the audience does not have any linguistic barrier at all.

Famously, George Orwell came up with six key rules in his essay. Politics and the English Language:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I would say that all of these rules represent excellent advice, and even more so when non-native speakers are present. Those metaphors, similes, and longer words may not be familiar to them, and complex passive constructions may confuse them.

One last note is that phrases that English imported from other languages come with their own set of booby traps for the unwary. The pronunciation of words, ordering of acronyms, or even the name of a phenomenon may change from one language to another. Stick to a plain description in common terms if your objective is to be understood and get your point across.

A wonderful example of someone explaining complex ideas with simple words is Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer:

In Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, things are explained using only drawings and a vocabulary of the 1,000 (or "ten hundred") most common words. Explore computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the things you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water you're made of (cells).

As Ernest Rutherford is reputed to have said, "A theory that you can't explain to a bartender is probably no damn good." Whatever you are trying to explain, it probably isn’t as complicated as what he had in mind!

And of course, never say or write anything outright barbarous - no matter what.

Image by Anders Jildén via Unsplash

  1. American friends, I kid because I love. We're good.