Idiomatic English means Brits struggle to communicate with the world – The Telegraph

The British are proud of the idiomatic humour of their language. 

But an academic has argued that they are actually falling behind because they insist on using phrases that the rest of the world does not understand. 

Professor Jennifer Jenkins, chair of Global Englishes at the University of Southampton, says that people who speak English as a first language are bad at changing their speech to suit non-native speakers, meaning they struggle to be understood. 

The divide means those who speak English as a second language speak it very differently to native speakers – and the two groups are increasingly unable to understand each other, she argues. 

Native speakers are also unwilling to make allowances for others by changing their speech patterns or slowing them down – meaning they struggle to socialise with non-native speakers who are better able to communicate with each other in English than they are with the British. 

The dynamic means the two groups could be unable to understand each other in as little as a decade – putting native speakers at a disadvantage with the rest of the world.

I can attest to this, in two ways. First, as a teacher of English as a foreign language (EFL) in France for many years, working with executives, it was not uncommon for these students to express frustration dealing with their British counterparts. While most French students were more familiar with British pronunciation than American back in the 1990s, when I was teaching, the use of idioms flummoxed them. They found that an American would often be more accommodating and speak more slowly if necessary, and not use such perplexing idiomatic expressions.

The second is my own experience, having moved to the UK almost five years ago. While I had long watched British movies and TV series, and read British fiction and newspapers, I was confronted with a wide range of everyday idioms that I had never heard. I still have to ask my partner – an Englishwoman – to explain some expressions to me.

The examples in this article are interesting. Asking an Italian if things are “going swimmingly” on a radio show is an example not only of linguistic insensitivity, but also bad radio. You don’t confuse your interviewees, you choose your words carefully if they are not native speakers so your interview goes smoothly. And asking a French president “So how would you buck that trend” is also a sign that the interviewer was clueless.

I’ll also point out that I find it surprising that the British – notably politicians – use the expression “time to step up to the plate,” most likely having no idea what it means. (It’s a baseball term; they don’t play much baseball in the UK.) Saying that to, say, a Greek person would have a doubly confusing effect. (Unless the Greeks happen to know about baseball.)

Source: Idiomatic English means Brits struggle to communicate with the world

16 thoughts on “Idiomatic English means Brits struggle to communicate with the world – The Telegraph

  1. That’s definitely an interesting observation as I found my command of the English language improved considerably after I focused my attention on idioms.

    While grammar and general vocabulary are important, the key to “colloquial” conversations with natives was memorizing and understanding these, getting to a point where non-natives could mistake you for a native speaker – possibly because you started talking in the same “riddles” as they do (a personal knack for regional accents helps considerably as well).

    However the other day I was made fun of for using “alas” in an email. On other occasions proper use of the language became the target of ridicule – so at least in very americanized non-native environments actual “proper” use of the English language has become a joke (to quote “nobody talks/writes like that”). As far as anecdotal evidence goes I’m not sure if that’s a desirable situation.

    • Indeed. In my experience, it takes a very long time to fully comprehend a normal range of idioms. I lived in France for a long time, and I’d say it took about ten years to feel comfortable with colloquial French (though the Brits seem to use more idioms than the French, who tend to use more “slang” words for everyday objects.)

  2. That’s definitely an interesting observation as I found my command of the English language improved considerably after I focused my attention on idioms.

    While grammar and general vocabulary are important, the key to “colloquial” conversations with natives was memorizing and understanding these, getting to a point where non-natives could mistake you for a native speaker – possibly because you started talking in the same “riddles” as they do (a personal knack for regional accents helps considerably as well).

    However the other day I was made fun of for using “alas” in an email. On other occasions proper use of the language became the target of ridicule – so at least in very americanized non-native environments actual “proper” use of the English language has become a joke (to quote “nobody talks/writes like that”). As far as anecdotal evidence goes I’m not sure if that’s a desirable situation.

    • Indeed. In my experience, it takes a very long time to fully comprehend a normal range of idioms. I lived in France for a long time, and I’d say it took about ten years to feel comfortable with colloquial French (though the Brits seem to use more idioms than the French, who tend to use more “slang” words for everyday objects.)

  3. Few could argue against the honesty of the article and your own remarks; and clearly, one must avoid some of examples given on the radio show. Moreover, you are again correct in pointing out that many idioms we use have no association with British English or the UK in general. Most are American and some people employ them just to show off.
    The other side of the coin (an idiom?) is that every language has its idioms and quirks. Again, just travel the length and breadth of the UK. There are linguistic phrases in Scotland, multiple areas of England & Wales which are incomprehensible to native speakers from a different part of the UK. It’s our history and culture that generates these. Let’s not lose them. Just be courteous to others.

    • Of course, but the article is talking about people who interact professionally with foreigners, who should know better. You’re more than welcome to use your idioms and regionalisms, but if you’re doing business or reporting the news, then you need to think more carefully.

      Reminds me of the time I ordered a martini in Barcelona, in the early 1980s, and was served a glass of vermouth…

  4. Few could argue against the honesty of the article and your own remarks; and clearly, one must avoid some of examples given on the radio show. Moreover, you are again correct in pointing out that many idioms we use have no association with British English or the UK in general. Most are American and some people employ them just to show off.
    The other side of the coin (an idiom?) is that every language has its idioms and quirks. Again, just travel the length and breadth of the UK. There are linguistic phrases in Scotland, multiple areas of England & Wales which are incomprehensible to native speakers from a different part of the UK. It’s our history and culture that generates these. Let’s not lose them. Just be courteous to others.

    • Of course, but the article is talking about people who interact professionally with foreigners, who should know better. You’re more than welcome to use your idioms and regionalisms, but if you’re doing business or reporting the news, then you need to think more carefully.

      Reminds me of the time I ordered a martini in Barcelona, in the early 1980s, and was served a glass of vermouth…

  5. Accent can also be an impediment, but maybe not how you would initially think. Several years ago, I worked with two Englishmen here in the States who were from different parts of the country, and although I could understand both of them just fine, they found it very difficult to understand each other’s accent!

  6. Accent can also be an impediment, but maybe not how you would initially think. Several years ago, I worked with two Englishmen here in the States who were from different parts of the country, and although I could understand both of them just fine, they found it very difficult to understand each other’s accent!

  7. I read the article, as I have The Telegraph app on my phone, and I agree heartily, but sometimes the idiomatic language made the conversation that much more interesting! However, as an American, I am not too shy to ask questions, if I don’t understand what’s being said.

  8. I read the article, as I have The Telegraph app on my phone, and I agree heartily, but sometimes the idiomatic language made the conversation that much more interesting! However, as an American, I am not too shy to ask questions, if I don’t understand what’s being said.

  9. This quote was on the last page of the first English (as a second language) book by Linguaphone that I avidly learned back in the mid to late 70s, together with the soft plastic records that I played hundreds of times:
    “Can you shew me any English woman who speaks English as it should be spoken? Only foreigners who have been taught to speak it speak it well.”
    ― George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

    On a recent trip from mainland China to Hong Kong, 2 gentlemen from Leeds were queuing behind me at the airport. When they talked to each other, I hardly understood anything. They told me they spoke in slang.

  10. This quote was on the last page of the first English (as a second language) book by Linguaphone that I avidly learned back in the mid to late 70s, together with the soft plastic records that I played hundreds of times:
    “Can you shew me any English woman who speaks English as it should be spoken? Only foreigners who have been taught to speak it speak it well.”
    ― George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

    On a recent trip from mainland China to Hong Kong, 2 gentlemen from Leeds were queuing behind me at the airport. When they talked to each other, I hardly understood anything. They told me they spoke in slang.

  11. Regarding the baseball terminology, I hear “sticky wicket” used (very infrequently) here in the States. I don’t play cricket, have never seen it played, but have enough cultural exposure to understand the term. I expect many Brits could say the same about baseball.

    In any event, this puts me in mind of the Monty Python sketch with a bunch of WWI fliers who baffle each other with their bizarre banter.

    “Bunch of monkeys on the ceiling, sir! Grab your egg-and-fours and let’s get the bacon delivered!”

  12. Regarding the baseball terminology, I hear “sticky wicket” used (very infrequently) here in the States. I don’t play cricket, have never seen it played, but have enough cultural exposure to understand the term. I expect many Brits could say the same about baseball.

    In any event, this puts me in mind of the Monty Python sketch with a bunch of WWI fliers who baffle each other with their bizarre banter.

    “Bunch of monkeys on the ceiling, sir! Grab your egg-and-fours and let’s get the bacon delivered!”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.