Danny Breslin

How it is…

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.

Spoken English

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.

 Written English

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!

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October 3, 2013 - Posted by | Stuff and Nonsense, Writing Your First Book | , , , , , ,

40 Comments »

  1. Great advice there Danny.

    Comment by Christopher Meade | October 3, 2013 | Reply

  2. Reblogged this on Laughing Penguins and commented:
    Danny Breslin, a great author and my good Brit friend, has kindly dedicated this post to my Mass Communication students in Delhi University.
    When my class started out blogging, he was the first one to visit their blogs, like, comment and engage with them. Deeply appreciated, Danny!

    And I must add that Danny is a first-rate writer. You should take a minute to check out his book, Me and Gus on the Roof of the World.

    So, as we discussed English, in all its verbal and written avataars, I asked Danny which Indian author(s) he enjoyed reading. This below is his answer.
    Danny: I have to admit to not having read much from either Indian or British Asian authors. I once read an essay in The Guardian by Arundhati Roy which I found absolutely stunning but never got around to reading The God of Small Things. Perhaps it should be added to my reading list.
    I guess my answer would have to be Meera Syal. I have seen some of the stuff she wrote for television and it was brilliant: Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No.42. She has written some bestsellers, such as Anita and Me, which are based around being born and brought up as an Asian in Britain.
    Here is a link to a page I found with the details of a few British Asian writers:
    http://www.desiblitz.com/content/popular-british-asian-writers

    Comment by mj | October 3, 2013 | Reply

  3. Being a bit of a language nut, I write about this topic a lot, in one way or another, and I always like to read other people’s take on it. The pronunciation issue reigns supreme. Just yesterday, a Spanish friend asked me on skype about the correct pronunciation of a couple of words, giving me the British English and a US English version. I said it didn’t matter, of course. But it’s very confusing for them.

    I have every sympathy for people struggling with producing sounds in another language that just don’t exist in theirs. Once you’re an adult, it’s hard. However, I must admit, that I find it annoying when people consistently get it wrong, despite the same sound being present in their native language’s sound register. For instance, English speakers will insist on pronouncing the German “Z” like an Enligh Z. Noooooo! It’s meant to sound like the “ts” in “Wotsits” (as in the snack food). Why is this so difficult?!?! 😉

    Comment by ladyofthecakes | October 3, 2013 | Reply

    • Yes, I spent some time working in Germany. My efforts at using the language were often mocked, probably because I continued to speak it in my own accent.

      Comment by Danny Breslin | October 4, 2013 | Reply

      • Aw, bless 😉

        Comment by ladyofthecakes | October 4, 2013

      • It’s funny about accents, and what we enjoy and don’t. I remember, about 20 years, ago, I saw a picture of Imran Khan (cricketer) and thought he was hot! Then I watched a TV interview, and the moment THAT accent came out of his mouth, my hormones died, lol. Brummie accent does the same to me, as does the dreadful Saxon one (in German). Eeeek.

        Comment by ladyofthecakes | October 4, 2013

      • I don’t think Brummies get a fair press. Their accent is often mixed up with the nearby Black Country accent which is very unfair as the accent is soooo much thicker and difficult to understand. See my post about it: https://dannybreslin.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/black-country-santa/
        Even though I’m not from Birmingham I live close enough that we got a lot of overspill families moving to our town. My mom was a Brummie in fact. It winds me up when you get actors from London playing the part of a Brummie and affecting more of a Dudley or Cannock accent and making the good folk of our second city sound stupid. It’s so wrong!
        Can’t comment about Saxons though, they all sound the same to me.

        Comment by Danny Breslin | October 4, 2013

      • I have to admit, I can’t distinguish between a B’ham accent and those of the surrounding areas. Hell, I have trouble distinguishing a Kiwi from an Aussie one 😉

        Comment by ladyofthecakes | October 4, 2013

      • Yes, their accents do sound surprising similar to the northern hemisph-ear.

        Comment by Danny Breslin | October 8, 2013

      • Hey, this discussion has inspired me to write a post, ta very muchly 🙂

        Comment by ladyofthecakes | October 8, 2013

  4. Wish i had this essay back when i taught English here in Brazil. Excellent stuff, Danny.

    Comment by john zande | October 3, 2013 | Reply

    • You really think so? Cheers mate, that’s made my day!

      Comment by Danny Breslin | October 4, 2013 | Reply

  5. Thank you so much Danny. While reading the post I was actually trying to spell V, W and T like you said. I really admire your writing style. The post has actually made me learn a lot of new things. Thumbs up for your efforts. 🙂

    Comment by tanvimahajan362 | October 3, 2013 | Reply

    • I’m glad it was of some use. So tell me – when you got to the ‘W’, were you actually pretending to kiss a fish?

      Comment by Danny Breslin | October 4, 2013 | Reply

      • Earlier I would say I didn’t notice my pronunciations much but now when I spell W for instance I quickly try to spell it like I am kissing a fish. It is actually fun!

        Comment by tanvimahajan362 | October 9, 2013

      • Next time I’m in Delhi you can help me with my Hindi. Keep practicing your ‘W’ but don’t get caught because they’ll think you’ve gone crazy. Oh and most important – please don’t kiss an actual fish!

        Comment by Danny Breslin | October 10, 2013

      • Absolutely.:D
        Not a chance. These things are to be practiced within the four walls of the room. 😉

        Comment by tanvimahajan362 | October 15, 2013

      • LOL

        Comment by Danny Breslin | October 15, 2013

  6. Coming from the Bronx I also needed to work for many years to learn English. Thus far I am without success.

    Comment by Bumba | October 3, 2013 | Reply

    • By the look of that sentence you’re not doing too bad, helluva lot better than me and I’m from England 🙂
      I didn’t really mean to upset the American people who read my blog, it was just a joke about slaughtering the language. Try listening to and understanding people from Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Dudley etc. where the English language is not just dead, they’ve held a requiem mass for it.

      Comment by Danny Breslin | October 4, 2013 | Reply

  7. I love when a book I read has that “voice”, that ability to draw me in and tell me a tale or story – love that!!! Happy Thursday:)

    Comment by cravesadventure | October 3, 2013 | Reply

    • Well if my book did that for you then I have achieved what I set out to do. Happy everyday.

      Comment by Danny Breslin | October 4, 2013 | Reply

  8. In my creative writing classes I was always taught that continually changing structures and lengths of sentences were a part of good writing. With that i too sometimes put together long sentences. But the best advise ever given me was when proof reading, if you have to stop and re-read a sentence to make sense of it, then that sentence usually needs changing.We all want our readers to be immersed in our stories. And a poorly put together sentence will jerk them out of that mind-set every time. By the way, still reading your book and enjoying it. Wow, you were one sick dude!

    Comment by richardmax22 | October 3, 2013 | Reply

    • Ach…I’ve been worse!
      That’s sound advice about the proof reading though, thanks.

      Comment by Danny Breslin | October 4, 2013 | Reply

  9. Me era stall is ma fav:)

    Comment by vishalbheeroo | October 3, 2013 | Reply

  10. I wanted to say, meera sayal. It’s an educative post on English language. CheerZ

    Comment by vishalbheeroo | October 3, 2013 | Reply

    • It’s okay, I knew what you meant. Thanks my friend.

      Comment by Danny Breslin | October 4, 2013 | Reply

  11. Reblogged this on Mirrors and Dreams and commented:
    A lovely piece of writing that gives great advice! Articulate, simple words will take you a long way.
    Danny Breslin is a great author who employs these things in his own writings, and chatting with him is simply fun! Thanks for the shoutout Danny; that’s a really sweet gesture 🙂

    Comment by mirrorsndreams | October 4, 2013 | Reply

  12. Thanks Danny for following my blog judysp@wordpress.com I appreciate your support. Thanks for the reblog too cheers Judy 🙂

    Comment by Judy | October 5, 2013 | Reply

  13. Reblogged this on A Slice of Life.

    Comment by always9 | October 6, 2013 | Reply

  14. Thanks for the shout out Danny . It really means a lot to me . I found your post very thought provoking , as one often tends to overlook such minute yet complex details while communicating . I really admire your writing style . 🙂

    Comment by always9 | October 6, 2013 | Reply

    • You’re very kind. All the best with your studies and keep blogging, you write some very interesting and deep posts.

      Comment by Danny Breslin | October 8, 2013 | Reply

  15. […] Communicating in English. […]

    Pingback by Communicating in English | LETS REACH THE SKY | October 7, 2013 | Reply

  16. Reblogged this on LETS REACH THE SKY and commented:
    Really an useful effort.
    Thanks:)

    Comment by rh | October 7, 2013 | Reply

  17. Reblogged this on tusharsat.

    Comment by tusharsat | October 12, 2013 | Reply

  18. […] recent discussion on Danny Breslin’s blog got me thinking about how people respond to the sounds of different languages, accents and […]

    Pingback by Language Matters: The Delicate Issue Of Accents | Lady Of The Cakes | October 22, 2013 | Reply


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