Sunday, September 27, 2009

International intelligibility

What kind of English is most widely intelligible? Research by the University of Hawaii's Larry Smith suggests that Asians tend to understand each other's English pronunciation more easily than that of native speakers from America or Britain. Jean-Paul Nerriere found something similar when observing Koreans and Japanese during his time as vice-president of IBM. As well as pronunciation he thought the key to increasing intelligibility was to simplify grammar and vocabulary, and now recommends that people all over the world be taught a simplified English that he has labelled 'Globish'.

While students all over the world continue to aim at sounding like native speakers (especially Americans), British linguist Jenny Jenkins suggests they should simply concentrate on a common 'international' pronunciation of certain sounds that frequently lead to misunderstanding. British-Thai educator Christopher Wright believes his students should differentiate sounds such as 'l' and 'r', but other teachers advise learners to stop worrying too much about individual sounds and instead to concentrate on distinguishing whole words. Thus it should not matter how you say 'butter', 'batter' and 'better' as long as you say each of them differently.

Unfortunately, even native speakers disagree about which words should be distinguished. Most Scots pronounce 'cot' and 'caught' the same, whereas Australians distinguish them. Most English people pronounce 'caught' and 'court' the same while most Americans differentiate them.

Working with fellow American linguist Cecil Nelson, Smith identified three key elements in successful communication: intelligibility (recognising familiar words) ; comprehensibility (knowing their possible meanings); and interpretability (understanding what speakers mean). Thus we need knowledge of various pronunciations, the various meanings that words may have, and the way speakers from different cultures vary.

So are Indians wrong to describe their favourite film to Canadian friends as deadly? Should Filipinos take more care when warning Australians they are going to tell a green joke (which in Sydney would be called a blue one)? The problem is that native speakers also differ among themselves when it comes to vocabulary: an American man is likely to get an amused reaction if he goes into a shop in London asking for 'suspenders', for example.
And what about grammar? Many Asians understand each other perfectly well despite dropping the third-person 's' and sticking to the present tense. Indeed they might ask why it is considered wrong to say 'She write' but okay to say 'She can' or 'She may', and why we are not supposed to say 'I go to the bank yesterday' when 'I shut my account last week' is all right.

As has been argued in this blog before, there isn't really a standard form of English, just some forms that are better understood (or admired) by certain people. What is important is to increase our knowledge of linguistic and cultural differences and adjust accordingly. As Smith has argued, we do not need to make ourselves intelligible to everyone, just to those we want to communicate with.