Do You Speak the Right English?

Declan Mulkeen

15 Dec 2017

With the spread of English as a de facto global language, understanding one another should become easier. People from different backgrounds and cultures are more likely to discover they share a common language than ever before, even if it’s not their mother tongue. It should be even easier for people who may come from different backgrounds and cultures to communicate if they both speak English as their native language. But is there a right English? 

The same English?

But is all spoken English the same English?

Most people who learn English formally learn a specific dialect and are generally aware that they are doing so. For example, most Europeans learn British English and a Received Pronunciation accent. On the other hand, most Asian countries now teach American English, and teachers tend to have an American accent, which influences their students.

Most Europeans learn British English and a Received Pronunciation accent

People from the Indian subcontinent, where English has been a common language spoken amongst their own diverse linguistic communities, often learn a distinct dialect of ‘Indian English.’ Hinglish, as it is sometimes called, borrows from an old-fashioned British vocabulary and includes some of its own syntax and grammar.

Do people use the English language in the same way?

Many people who speak English fluently and comfortably in one environment are often surprised when they are exposed to a new use of the English language for the first time, especially if English is their mother tongue. In an article published in The Wall Street Journal, an excellent example has been highlighted by a well travelled Canadian. Although she mastered small talk in English in places as diverse as Israel, Hong Kong and the US, she struggled when she settled in the UK.

Many people who speak English fluently and comfortably in one environment are often surprised when they are exposed to a new use of the English language

British Rules of Engagement

What did the Canadian expatriate find so difficult? Small talk.

Small talk helps people get on with one another, especially in public places and in situations where people don’t know one another very well. How people use small talk is heavily influenced by culture. Thus, a direct Israeli, a harmonious Hong Kong resident, a ‘sharing’ American, and an approachable Canadian may have different styles of small talk.

How people use small talk is heavily influenced by culture

British English, especially that spoken to the London-based Canadian author, is another matter all together. Coded language, nuance and a plethora of unwritten rules caused nothing but confusion to this native English speaker.

So what advice is valuable for speaking the right English?

Although there are regional differences, the following points will serve anyone well who wishes to fit in and understand the UK and especially greater London and the Home Counties. The author acknowledges the wisdom of Kate Fox in her book Watching the English, who has also written about English language usage amongst the British.

1. Avoid direct compliments

The British do not always respond well to direct compliments. Often, the recipient will rebuff the compliment or will respond with modesty, understatement and self-deprecation to help them feel less awkward. Burying a compliment within another comment may be the way to go, but don’t be surprised if the response is the equivalent of ‘oh, it was nothing’.

The British do not always respond well to direct compliments

2. Do not discuss anything too personal

Most English speakers are usually open about what they speak about. However, in the UK, discussing the following topics is certainly off limits, although exceptions are made on the topic of house prices:

  • religion
  • politics
  • medical conditions
  • money

Being polite and noncontroversial is paramount, as is the respect for privacy.

3. Indirect communication

Speaking directly is a general characteristic of English speakers – unless you are British. Hinting and alluding is generally more comfortable than stating something too directly, especially when facing a problem or other difficulty. Kate Fox in her book cites an innocuous example of how even a direct computer error message could have been worded in a more roundabout way.

4. Learn coded language as well as body language

Understatement and stock phrases are also useful to know and understand. They usually can be identified by underplaying a point. ‘It’s a bit wet out’ to describe a flood is a good example. Additionally, some phrases are an invitation for a conversation; others are designed to do the opposite. In addition to the weather, sport and commuting are favourite topics to initiate conversation; ‘how are you?’ is not.

Some phrases are an invitation for a conversation; others are designed to do the opposite

5. Know how to end a conversation and leave

Knowing when to end a conversation and leave is an art. Making your escape should always be done politely. ‘I’d love to stay and talk but my train is arriving soon’ or similar works well.

In summary, speaking the right English is not always straightforward, obvious or easy for outsiders. Avoiding an awkward situation is key. The rest will come to the observant in time.



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