Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Globish affair

Many native English speakers, ourselves included, can be accused of laziness and/or indifference when it comes to learning other languages. Fair enough comment, especially when compared to the linguistic exploits of the likes of the Dutch and Germans, to name just two nationalities.

The fact that our language (yes we’re Irish but we won’t pretend to be anything close to fluent Gaelic speakers) is the world’s chief business tongue means we generally more than survive and mingle in foreign countries without having to master – or even come close to mastering – others.
It's the thought/effort that counts, right?
'Is there a refund if we don't make it across the bridge?'

Basically, if English isn't your first language, there’s a high chance it’s your second, or at least you desire it to be. In contrast, for native English speakers, there isn't a common second language we gravitate towards. Looking at our situation here, we have what we’ll describe as an ‘okay’ grasp of Spanish simply because we've spent the last two years plus surrounded by it in Colombia and elsewhere. Had things worked out differently, it could be French or German or Dutch or what have you that we’d have as our ‘second language’ (we’ll use that lightly). In other words, things happened by chance rather than design. For those who have English as their number two tongue, the chances they gained it in such a similar ad hoc manner are pretty slim.

At the risk of making an excuse for many native English speakers’ ‘language laziness’, the words of a good Israeli friend are a nice synopsis of the current state-of-play. As he opined, in a professional context in any case, knowing Spanish is great if you’re in a country where it’s widely spoken (as we have been) or if you need it for work, but outside of that it’s not going to win you much favour. The same can be said for most other languages. (Obviously being able to speak and understand every language on the planet would be great, but let’s stay in the realms of reality for now).

In fact it can be a bit frustrating when we make efforts to speak to somebody in their first language – we’re specifically referring to Spanish here – and they automatically switch to speaking English. Our Spanish isn't that bad, come on! Moreover, in all our travels across the world, we only need one hand to count the number of times English was not the default language when we found ourselves with groups of people from a range of diverse countries.

Taking all this on board, it leads us on to the rapidly growing, evolving and contested area of ‘Globish’ – that is of course ‘Global English’, or as some might see it, ‘dumbed-down English’. To put it simply, it’s the ‘English’ you’re likely to hear if, for example and to give it a truly international or ‘global’ feel considering the point we’re making, a Colombian man strikes up a conversation with a Chinese counterpart at Frankfurt airport. What’s spoken is unlikely to meet the approval of English language ‘guardians’ in Oxford or Cambridge (we'll put aside ‘Irish English’ for the moment), but the people in question will fully understand each other (more or less) in their common tongue.

For us, anything that helps different cultures communicate and comprehend each other is generally a good thing. Thus we do our best not to frown upon what at times seems like the ‘bastardisation’ of English (it must be pointed out though that some non-native English speakers have a better understanding of the language than many native ones).
Some 'minor' spelling mistakes on a Colombian TV production
Even, ahem, 'quality' Colombian TV productions make some mistakes

Now due to its position as the global business language, it’s fair to say that there is a greater tolerance of English not being spoken entirely correctly. We find, and given where we’re coming from there’s perhaps no surprise in this, native English speakers are more inclined to let errors made by others role compared to when an English speaker tries to speak in another language.

Maybe we’re just being a bit paranoid about this; but if we wanted to we could, for example, correct every second word uttered by some of our Colombian acquaintances. In a teaching environment, that’s obviously what we’re paid to do; but outside of that, if we get the sentiment, we’re happy to let things go. We believe it's not as smooth vice versa. Then again, we would, wouldn't we?

With more time, this might not be an issue. Yes, we haven’t really needed excellent Spanish in a professional context here in Colombia. However for matters closer to the heart, it may be prudent to be much sharper than we currently are. Then again, maybe not.

For more on English in Colombia, check out The 'money' tongue at http://bit.ly/V8ELH4.


  1. Hola Brendan. Me gustó mucho el artículo y tu actitud hacia el idioma español también. Creo que los colombianos estamos predispuestos a saber que el extranjero no sabe nada de español y por eso le hablamos en inglés.

    Cuando vengas podemos hablar también en español para que practiques mas.

    Por último , opino que en el mundo laboral y en los trabajos mejor pagados, el conocimiento de otros idiomas ayuda mucho y creo es aplica para los nativos en inglés como para los que no.

    Nos vemos pronto.

    1. Pues, yo dije que estoy un poco perezoso en este contexto!

      Pero sí, necesito a tratar más. Me has dado un reto jeje!

      Nos vemos.

    2. Excelente.

      Cuidate y nos vemos