Why proper English rules OK

Image of Simon Kuper

“To be born an Englishman,” Cecil Rhodes supposedly said, “is to win first prize in the lottery of life.” But the old imperialist was wrong. What he should have said was, “To be born an English-speaker...” The global rise of bad English is helping us native speakers rise.

I first realised our advantage at a conference last year. The speakers came from across northern Europe, but they all gave their talks in English – or a sort of English. Germans, Belgians and French people would stand up and, in monotones and distracting accents, read out speeches that sounded as if they’d been turned into English by computers. Sometimes the organisers begged them to speak their own languages, but they refused. Meanwhile the conference interpreters sat idle in their booths.

Each new speaker lost the audience within a minute. Yet whenever a native English-speaker opened his mouth, the audience listened. The native speakers sounded conversational, and could make jokes, add nuance. They weren’t more intelligent than the foreigners, but they sounded it, and so they were heard. Here, in microcosm, was a nascent international hierarchy: native English-speakers rule.

English has been invading international settings since at least 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was written in English as well as French. Later leg-ups for the language include the rise of American multinationals, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the coming of the internet and the opening of China, says Nigel White, head of international training and development at the Canning communications company.

Today about one in four humans speaks at least some English, according to the British Council. Many more want to learn it. Robert McCrum, co-author of The Story of English, hails “the apparent realisation of one of mankind’s oldest dreams – the end of Babel”.

Of course most of these new speakers don’t speak proper English. They speak “Globish” – a simple, dull, idiom-free version of English with a small vocabulary. Most Europeans at my conference, for instance, spoke Globish. Speakers of Globish often struggle to understand native English. They are confused by idioms, half-sentences, references to ancient TV programmes, or simply the British habit of not saying what you mean. Hilary Moore, a senior trainer at Canning, notes that Germans in particular don’t understand that when Britons say, “Well, it wasn’t fantastic,” they might in fact mean, “It was dreadful.” And some native speakers have impenetrable accents. “Nobody understands the Irish,” notes White. Foreigners often sit in English-language meetings getting tired, confused, jealous and irritated. A Dutch friend of mine describes a meeting in which 10 Dutch executives speak English to accommodate a single Briton – who, my friend grumbles, “sits there feeling superior”.

Because English-Globish misunderstandings are common, experts often warn that native English-speakers will suffer in this new world. However, native speakers simply need to learn Globish. White says a half-day course can teach native speakers to speak slowly, without irony, and to bin confusing verbs like “to put up with”.

Let’s say a native English-speaker can learn Globish in days. Compare that with the years it takes to learn French (let alone Mandarin). No wonder British teenagers have stopped bothering with foreign languages. French has dropped out of the top 10 subjects studied by British 16-year-olds. Why spend years learning to order a beer in bad French, when you can order it in Globish? Only a few specialists need to learn foreign languages well enough to penetrate foreign societies. For most Britons, bad French is no longer necessary.

Worse, learning a second language can actually disadvantage native English-speakers. If you speak mediocre French, you might find yourself speaking it in a business meeting with French people. That way they will sound quicker and smarter than you. Force them to speak English and you win.

In a Globish world, the native English-speaker triumphs. When you need to drop into Globish, you can. But when subtlety or speed is required, you beat them. Moore says native English-speakers often steer conversation, using phrases like, “Can I just jump in here...” and, “So what we’re saying is...” Foreigners sit mutely, trying to follow what’s being said.

This now happens even in Brussels, especially since the non-French-speaking eastern Europeans joined in 2004. Today most of the European Commission’s spokespeople speak English. Brits and Irish draft many official documents, because writing decent English is a strain for everyone else. So native-speakers quietly shape debate. The same happens in multinational companies, says Moore.

The strategy for native English-speakers is clear. Learn a bit of extra Globish, and Bob’s your uncle.*

* Translation for Globish-speaking readers: “Bob’s your uncle” means everything will be OK.


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