Having read this post, I feel kind of relieved that after years of grappling with the darned English idioms and phrasal verbs, I can finally slow down a bit because native speakers of English will soon have to adjust to a lingua franca world. In other words, when communicating with speakers from the Expanding Circle, native speakers will be compelled to either avoid culture-bound expressions completely or use strategies of repetition and rephrasing frequently. This brings me to a couple of recent experiences.
Scene 1: I am sitting in a café, listening (unwillingly but with great interest so typical for an English teacher) to a group of four business partners discussing something in English. My 7-year-old son is trying hard to divert my attention from my little linguistic research, but I manage to conclude that three of them are Czechs and one is a foreigner, but definitely not a native speaker. They are all speaking fluently and casually, though their pronunciation is somewhat sloppy (especially the Czechs are driving me crazy!). This sloppiness, however, doesn’t prevent them from understanding one another and apparently, they’re having fun.
Scene 2: I’m sitting on a plane before the takeoff. One of the pretty flight attendants is going through the safety instructions routine, speaking English (presumably). She’s speaking fluently, but this time I can’t tell whether her pronunciation is sloppy because I can’t understand a word of what she says. Only the occasional changes in pitch and rhythm tell me that she’s not a robot. Seeing my puzzled expression, my friend mentions that she’s Hungarian. I’m a bit worried because I really want to understand someone who’s explaining to me what to do to save my b… in an emergency situation. There’s nothing wrong with the microphone, the loudspeakers or my ears because later on, up there in the air, I have no problem understanding the Czech-speaking co-pilot, who’s probably got hold of the mike in order to scare the hell out of the passengers who previously flew with Germanwings or watch too much TV.
Scene 3: I’m strolling through a nature reserve here in the Czech Republic when I come across a young couple conversing in English. They are definitely native speakers, and judging by their accent, they’re probably from the UK. I linger a few steps behind them in an attempt to catch bits and bobs of the conversation (despicable me!), but I can’t understand very much. To be honest, I don’t even have a clue about the topic, let alone the details.
Jumping to conclusions stage:
1) Varieties of English are everywhere you look. It’s a fact.
2) No matter what variety of English you teach and learn at school,
a) it’ll always be difficult to understand some native speakers, especially if they’re not talking to you directly or if you’re not familiar with the context of their conversation.
b) it’ll always be difficult to understand some non-native speakers, especially if you haven’t had an opportunity to adjust to their accent and if their speech is unnatural in some way. To come back to Scene 2, if you, like me, fly rarely, the lack of experience will be crucial.
c) it might be easy to understand some non-native speakers, especially if you share the same L1 or work in the same field. I’ve actually never met a Czech whose English I’d have difficulty decoding – no matter how bad it was (unless he/she was totally drunk or too nerdy).
Most of my students don’t know yet what purposes they’re studying English for; they’re learning it because it’s part of the national curriculum. So I believe that at this stage, the more they learn, the better. I’m not planning to bombard them with low-frequency expressions or rare idioms, but I’m not sure whether I can relax and ignore certain ‘imperfections’ just because they are ignored by users of English as a lingua franca. Actually, I can’t. By the way, some of my students are familiar with expressions and idioms I’ve never heard of so we constantly learn from one another.