24 September 2013

How well does English really work as a 'common language' of communication?

(Script of my presentation at last week's European Speechwriters Conference).

This talk has been prompted by a number of experiences running courses on speechwriting and presentation in various parts of Europe.

Like some of my previous presentations at UK Speechwriters’ Guild conferences, it poses more questions than it answers. But at least it may open a discussion of possible interest and relevance to many of you here today.

All the courses on speechwriting were conducted in English

None of those attending was a native-speaker of English.

But all of them had the job of writing speeches in English, to be given by other non-native speakers of English to audiences of yet more non-native speakers of English.

We who have been native speakers of English since acquiring language in the first place (and who have little need to develop a command of any other language) cannot help being full of admiration for the fact that they can do it at all. But the challenge they face brings three true stories to mind, and raises at least three questions worth discussing.

Speaking to non-native speakers (1) 
The first time I ever spoke to an audience of non-native speakers of English was more than three decades ago at an academic conference in the Council of Europe chamber in Strasbourg.

It was long before I'd developed a technical interest in how audiences react to public speaking. when my main experience had been listening to academics read out papers at other academic conferences.

I was to present a 30 page academic paper, for which I had been allocated 5 minutes.

So I decided (very unwisely) to read it aloud as quickly as possible and see how far I got - which wasn't very far. After about half a minute, the chairman interrupted me. 

The  simultaneous interpreters had complained that they couldn't keep up with me speaking at such a pace, so he asked me to slow down.

Speaking to non-native speakers (2) 
Later on, at another academic conference at the University of Konstanz, I could tell that my audience was looking increasingly puzzled by what I was saying.

By then, I had become a bit more sensitive to the needs of my audience and came up with what might have been a suitable strategy: simplify, simplify, simplify.

Suitable strategy it might have been if only I hadn't use more colloquialisms and slang to 'simplify' my points. And that, of course, was no solution at all, as it made my talk even more unintelligible to the audience than it had been in the first place.

Speaking to non-native speakers (3)
In the third example, I wasn’t actually speaking but was in an audience of mixed,  nationalities, mainly from Europe, at a conference in Urbino.

It was a memorable lecture analysing a letter by Pliny the Younger by the well-known semiologist and author, Umberto Eco - though memorable more for what happened than for what he said.

He had just started his lecture when a group of locals demanded to know why he was speaking English in an Italian university. His response was impressively democratic and he asked the audience:

“How many of you can only speak English?”

I was one of the tiny minority of 5 or 6 native speakers of British and American English who raised their hands.

In response to which Eco quickly rephrased his question:

“For how many of you is English the only foreign language you can understand?”

The vast majority of hands now went up, to which Eco turned to his compatriots and said:

As my lecture was advertised to be in English and the only language most people here understand is English, I shall give my lecture in English” – at which point, the rebellious Italian minority walked out.

Lingua Anglica
So, although English may have become Europe’s new Lingua Franca its dominance is not always without its problems.

Speaking more quickly and simplifying via colloquialisms and slang are obviously no solution.

And there is quite a lot of good news. For one thing, the same rhetorical techniques are just as effective in getting messages across in any particular language – and have been for at least 2,000 years since the classical Greeks began teaching and writing about rhetoric.

For example, I remember when writing Our Masters Voices, Francois Mitterand had just been elected President of France – and the one line that was widely quoted in the British media was a poetic contrast with alliteration.

In English his aim was translated as: “My aim will be to convince, not to conquer.”

The original French version must have arguably sounded even more poetic, with its simple rhyme:
á convaincre, pas á vaincre." 

Stories & imagery
Nor is it just rhetorical techniques like contrasts and three-part lists that work effectively to get messages across in any language. The same is true of using stories or anecdotes to illustrate your key points.

Other forms of imagery can also work effectively in any language, but metaphors do sometimes need handling with care, especially in the case of sporting metaphors.

As a native speaker of British English, I often find myself bemoaning the fact that we have imported so many baseball metaphors from American English,  even though it’s not a game that's played or understood by most British adults.

But that doesn’t stop us having to listen to fellow British presenters telling us about “Going up to the plate” or “getting past first base”.

Cricketing metaphors may be fine for speakers of English in Australasia, the Caribbean or the Indian sub-continent, but they're not much use in  the USA, or indeed in the rest of Europe.

What do they really mean?
All of which brings me to some rather obvious questions, about which I'm curious, but to which I have no obvious answers.

Although English is so widely spoken around the world, how well is it actually understood?

Or, going back to my opening comments, how effectively are non-native speakers of English who give speeches written by other non-native speakers of English to audiences of yet more non-native speakers  of English?

I used to do quite a lot of work with the director of communications at a British company that had recently been taken over by a Dutch company.

When I made some remark about how lucky they were that the Netherlands was part of the English-speaking world, he replied:

“Yes, their English is very impressive – but there are times when we’re not quite sure whether they’ve really got the point.”
The crunch question
It was a similar story from a Japanese student in Oxford who was studying for a PhD.

As she had spent many of her teenage years growing up in the USA, she was fluent in Japanese and English, which enabled her to pay for her studies by doing simultaneous translation at high level business meetings.

After one such meeting between Japanese and British motor manufacturers, I asked her how it had gone – to which she replied:

“OK as far as it went, but I do think that they should pay me for an extra hour after the meetings so I could tell them what I think they really meant.”

Her point, of course, was that the simultaneous literal translation was all very well, but she was also noticing and interpreting a good deal more than the words that were actually coming out of the Japanese mouths.

And what she thought they really meant was a potentially valuable asset in the negotiating process.

Three questions 
Many of you in this audience will have had first hand experience of such issues, so I'll end with three questions in search of an answer.

How important do you think the problem of translating what speakers really mean is.

Does the use of English as a common language mean that there’s something unavoidably cloudy about the way the countries of Europe – and the wider world - are communicating with each other?

And if listeners are not quite understanding what a speaker really means, how much does it matter?