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.)