The English We Hear

Did you know that we have to get used to many different varieties of English to make sense of what we hear?

by Louis Alexander

We can control what we say to other people, but we can't control what they say to us and this is why we have to get used to many different varieties of English to make sense of what we hear. We soon get used to the way our teachers speak and we understand them very well, whether they are native speakers or non-native. The moment we leave the classroom, however, we are exposed to other people's English and we may find it very difficult to cope.

If the speakers are non-native, like ourselves, we know they have had similar learning experiences and are therefore likely to make allowances as they struggle to understand us and we struggle to understand them. In these situations, which are the most common worldwide where English is used as a means for international communication, we have to get used to the different accents which reflect the other speakers' mother tongues. Native speakers of French, Greek, Spanish, Chinese, etc. will all speak English with the accents that reflect their linguistic backgrounds, so in practice we have to cope with Frenglish, Gringlish, Spanglish, Chinglish, etc. In business negotiations, the party with the better English may also have a business advantage when it comes to negotiating and this is something we must be aware of.

When we are communicating with native speakers, we have to get used to an altogether different variety of accents. Though there is such a thing as Standard American and Received Pronunciation in British English, many native speakers depart from these clear styles. So a speaker of American English might speak the language of the Deep South or might speak Brooklynese (the language associated with the borough of Brooklyn in New York). A speaker of British English might have a Yorkshire, Welsh, Irish, or Scottish accent or might speak Cockney (the language associated with the East End of London). Beyond this, we may be exposed to Australian English, Canadian English, New Zealand English or the varieties of English spoken on the continents of Africa and India.

Native speakers may be particularly difficult to understand because they might not make allowances for our comprehension. They may speak too quickly or use too many idioms, such as 'This experience kept me on my toes' (= made me ready for anything else that might happen). Or: 'I really got into hot water during the discussion' (= had a lot of difficulty). Or they may use a lot of slang and street language such as 'double whammy' (= bad things that happen together); 'guru' (= expert); 'geek' (= someone who is boring and wears unfashionable clothes); 'synergy' (= the extra energy produced by two people combining their energy and ideas), and so on. Even the most recently-published dictionaries have a job keeping up with the endless stream of new language that is constantly generated.

What does Direct English do about this situation? First of all, it obliges the learner, right from Lesson 1, to get used to English spoken at natural speed (though there are slowed-down versions for learning purposes). Next it introduces a range of different native-speaker accents in addition to the Bostonian speakers in the storylines who speak Standard American. There are characters like Simon who speaks British English, or Kevin who speaks Australian English. There are also non-native speakers from middle Europe or Asia, so you get used to a great variety of accents, native and non-native. However, Direct English does not attempt to teach slang and street language, much of which quickly goes out of fashion. It is up to you, the learner, to negotiate with the other speaker(s), the language you would like to hear.


© LG & DE Limited 2006


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