Communicating in English
I don’t like to boast (yeah right) but I think that having friends from all over the world is something worth boasting about. Inspired by my friend in India, Meenakshi (who is more proficient in English than I will ever be, despite my being born on these shores), I have written a few thoughts about speaking and writing in English as a second language.
Oh, and a big, big shout out to the girls in MJs class at the University of New Delhi. Stars of the future.
English is the universal language; it is a common link that enables the world to communicate easily and effectively. If fate had decreed it could have been French, but a quick visit to your history books will tell you why it isn’t.
When speaking English, if it is not your first language, it is important to listen to it being spoken by natives. The BBC World Service on the radio is a great example of English being spoken properly. Similarly, the BBC provides a news channel on many televisions around the world. Listen to how they pronounce the words. (See below for the example about the pronunciation of the word ‘water’.) Take note of the accent, the inflections, the rhythm. Take note of how they shape the words with their mouths, something you can practice in front of the mirror – just don’t get caught doing this or people might think you’ve gone mad!
You might think it strange when I write about the shape of the mouth when speaking, but it is important. Using French as an example, they speak using their lips to form the words a lot more than we do; our language is guttural in a similar way to German, the sound comes from our throat. After all, modern English descended from Old German brought over by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians in the 5th century.
I have noticed Indian people, that I have spoken to, have pushed their tongue to the roof of their mouth to form a harder sound on some words. They also pronounce the letter ‘V’ as ‘W’ and vice versa (or should that be wice wersa?) For a ‘V’ as in video, the bottom lip should brush against the top teeth. For a ‘W’ as in water you should pretend you’re kissing a fish. Oh yes, and for a softer sound on the ‘T’ in ‘water’ the tongue should, at most, gently meet the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth, not strike it like a bell.
You can also practice softening your accent, make it more neutral. This is something I have to do depending on the company I am with at the time. If I am with my friends in my hometown then my accent can, at times, become difficult to follow for people who weren’t raised in the same area.
Practice when you are speaking a foreign language is vital. When I was at university I did a module entitled Community Language; as there is a large Pakistani community in the local area we were taught Urdu. That allowed me to communicate in Hindi and Punjabi too, although I could never make any sense of Guajarati. With them using chai instead of hai, I couldn’t figure out why they kept saying ‘6’ (in Hindi, ‘chhe’) at the end of so many sentences. The point is that this part of the course was discontinued in the second year and, without constant practice, the language I had learned slowly faded from my memory. Now I only remember the swear words.
In my book Me & Gus on the Roof of the World (shameless plug there!), one of the characters I met in China I nicknamed Hollywood because it was obvious that he had learned his English from watching American movies. Please don’t do this! Americans, I’m sure, are lovely people but they have been mercilessly slaughtering our language since the Mayflower dropped anchor. I read somewhere that within fifty years they might all be speaking Spanish; good, then let our Iberian amigos grind their teeth instead.
Writing in English is, in my view, a lot more difficult, even if you can speak it fluently. This is because it is governed by rules of grammar, rules that many natives of Britain themselves have not grasped.
One critic of my book sent an email and scolded me for playing fast and loose with my sentence structure. I admit that I did over extend some of my sentences but that was deliberate. I wanted to create a flow for the reader so it was as if they were hearing the tale told to them, rather than using Short. Sharp. Sentences. that might have broken it up. Indeed, some of the reviewers of my book have commented that it made them feel as if they were sitting in a pub listening to me tell the story.
This storytelling tradition has been passed down since before writing was even invented. It is a gift learned from my father who was originally from Ireland, a lyrical people. He could spin a yarn that would mesmerise the listener. His jokes would stretch on, involving different characters and would be so rich in detail that you would never guess it was a joke until he hit you with the punch-line.
Yet rules are there to be followed, and although you can bend them to a certain extent to suit your style (e.g. Roddy Doyle), it is best to avoid straying too far and breaking them altogether. Ignore grammar and your sentence structure will fall apart, this will confuse the reader and drive them away.
The best advice I can think of is to read widely, practice and be creative. Decide on your target audience, who are you writing for? Tailor it accordingly. More than that, who is that one person that you are writing for? Can you describe them in detail? Writing solely for this one imaginary person who represents your entire audience will keep you from trying too hard to please everyone.
Oh yes, and one last thing: avoid using big words to sound clever when just a small one will do. Remember, discombobulating can be disconcerting!