3 scenes

IMG_20150628_114153Having 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.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to 3 scenes

  1. Marc says:

    Great post. I try to be as Lingua Franca-informed as I can but the fact is that ELF is informed by Inner-Circle use and norms and ELF is a negotiated situation in every single use. Czechs together speaking English will speak it differently in the presence of a Chinese, Azeri, Egyptian as would British. The difference is that Czechs wouldn’t resort to Idiot English whereas the Britons might. I don’t think British speakers need special ELF lessons; they just need to be more sensitive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Idiot English – is it an official term or did you invent it yourself? 🙂 Seriously, I do get your point. I absolutely agree that native-speakers just need to be more sensitive when talking to non-natives. I like what you say about adjusting the way you speak depending on who you speak to. I’d like to add, maybe a bit off-topic, that I will probably speak differently when talking to a Brit than when talking to a German user of English, for example; I bet that especially my pron will be much sloppier if I speak to a non-native using EFL but there’ll be no communication breakdowns. I perfectly understand the demand for simplification, in business English, for example, but of course, I personally aim at becoming as native-like and proficient as possible because I’m a teacher of English and my teaching context encourages me to set such goals. I’m not implying, though, that all English teachers should or have to achieve native-like pron or proficiency. It really depends on the circumstances and situation. By the way, I originally chose to study English because I fell in love with the language and all its complexities so EFL can’t obviously be my goal. However, the majority of users of English will be perfectly satisfied with that since it will serve their purpose. I’m starting to digress so I’ll leave here 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: He who digs a hole … | How I see it now

  3. swisssirja says:

    Hana, what a humorous piece of writing. At places I could feel you typing it emotionally 🙂
    Yep, the idioms and expressions … This is where my learning happens, not the grammar, not the basic voc but idioms and all these strange expressions. I have a notebook to jot them down. Why? Probably for the same reasons you learn them, as teachers it’s our validity at stake. I don’t mean you cannot be a good teacher if you didn’t know and use loads and loads of idioms, but it’s a more personal teacher thing – always striving to be better, right?
    One of my best friends here in CH is an English woman. Every time we chat (often!) i have to ask once or twice for clarifiction, a la ‘wait, what did you just say?’ I love that 🙂
    Yesterday I learned this – up against the buffers 🙂

    Till next time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      ‘This is where my learning happens, not the grammar, not the basic voc but idioms and all these strange expressions.’ Nicely put and I totally agree. Idioms can be confusing and annoying, but there’s one thing I really like about them; they carry much more that just an instant meaning. Not only are they culture-bound, but their etymologies will virtually take us back in time. Yesterday, for example, I learned that in English they use the term *silly season* to describe a period when the mass media often focus on trivial or frivolous matters for lack of major news stories. In Czech, we say *cucumber season*. It’s interesting when you consider that *silly* and *cucumber* are totally different concepts. Now and then, I love to delve into all these regional and historical differences. By the way, I’d say that learning idioms with their etymologies is very helpful in terms of retention.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Sirja! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s