'Laura, what do British people think when they hear learners speak English?'

The other week, one of my students asked me if it’s really funny for British people to hear all of the mistakes made by non-native speakers. Another one chipped in with an anecdote of how he’d been in the pub with a group of Brits who had seemingly made no effort to adapt their language to take account of the fact that English wasn’t his first language. I bought myself some time with the classic response ‘Hmm, that’s a really interesting question.’ However, I wasn’t lying – it is a really interesting question, one which I’ll attempt to give a multi-stranded response to this week.

We’re used to it!

First of all, British people are really used to hearing English spoken in a wide range of accents.  This is not only because so many people speak it as a second language but also because there are a wide range of native speaker accents, even just within the UK.

We don’t realize what’s difficult about English…

Unfortunately, the widespread nature of the English language means that it’s all too easy for native speakers to become complacent when it comes to learning a foreign language themselves.  But people who haven’t got very far with learning a language don’t always understand what it is that’s difficult about English.  We expect those learning English to struggle with tenses and pronunciation but might not have considered that listening, prepositions, articles and idiomatic language (phrasal verbs, anyone?)  are what really baffle learners.  

We don’t want to seem ignorant…

There is a joke that the average British person’s attitude to speaking other languages consists of going abroad and expecting that by speaking English LOUDLY and s-l-o-w-l-y they can get everyone to understand them.  So no-one with any cultural sensitivity wants to be that negative cliché – there is a feeling that you shouldn’t patronize learners of English by speaking to them as if they’re stupid.  Sadly, the result is that when many learners try to engage in conversation with native speakers, stupid is exactly what they feel because they miss a lot of what is being said. 

We don’t study English like you do…

Generations of English speakers have managed to study English all through school without ever explicitly learning tenses, sentence structure or much of the vocabulary needed to describe parts of speechInstead, our compulsory English lessons focus on spelling (and a little bit of punctuation), vocabulary expansion, reading literature and creative writing.  My friend tells a good anecdote in which her French teacher was shocked to be faced with a class of eleven year olds who had no idea what a verb was!  And here’s my mum describing non-defining relative clauses; ‘You know those bits of a sentence in commas which contain some extra information?’  And I would be very surprised indeed if any of my non-English teacher friends had ever heard of the third conditional.  That’s not to say that we don’t know how to use all these structures - it’s just that unless you train to be an English teacher you really don’t have much idea of what they’re called.  What I’m saying is that native speakers are reluctant to correct your mistakes because they usually have no idea how to explain what’s wrong!

So, I hope this week’s post has helped to reassure you.  If you are unlucky enough to come across someone who makes fun of your English it’s their problem not yours!  Clearly, they are narrow-minded and ignorant.  Oh, but if you want to avoid the kind of mistakes that might make a British person giggle, I’d recommend Paul Hancock’s Is that what you mean?.  It shows you 100 of the most common errors made by learners of English and how to correct them. 

Good luck with your English!

By Laura


widespread (adj.) – spread over a large area

complacent (adj.) – lazy, accepting of the current situation

baffle (v.) - confuse

explicitly (adv.) – clearly and intentionally

parts of speech (n.) – for example, nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs

anecdote (n.) – a personal story, usually humorous

indeed (adv.) – without a doubt.  Used to add emphasis

ignorant (adj.) – rude and unaware

giggle (v.) – laugh childishly

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