The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, July 13, 2009

Speaking slowly and clearly

Yesterday evening we went out for a meal at a new Italian restaurant up the road. The food was great, but the Italian waiter was perhaps a bit too authentic. We realised that his English comprehension skills left a bit to be desired when he got rather confused over our order, which had to be sorted out by an English colleague.

It led to a discussion about the art of speaking English to non-native speakers. Having spent many years as an English teacher, both abroad and in this country, it's something that you get down to a fine art and it's not just about speaking very slowly and shouting!

Sometimes it's a matter of being more simple and direct, using smiles and intonation to convey politeness rather than confusing long constructions (would it be possible to .../would you mind if ...). After we'd got our order straight last night and the English waitress had taken our wine order, the Italian waiter came back and asked "Have you ordered wine?". My boyfriend started to mumble something like "Your colleague's just been over" - I jumped in with a simple "Yes, thank you" which did the job much more effectively.

And when it came to coffee, I was reminded of an incident when I lived in Greece many years ago. I was in a cafe with some British friends who were visiting. The waiter, who'd greeted us in English, came to take our order and my friend offered "CAN I HAVE acoffeewithmilkplease?" She couldn't understand why he looked so confused, but then smiled and nodded when I 'translated': "a coffee, with milk, please". Yesterday evening, a careful emphasis on the key words once again did the job "Wemighthave some COFFEE LATER" - it elicited a grateful smile and a repeated "ok, coffee, later".

It's not just about simplicity, speed and intonation. Any English teacher knows only too well the words and constructions that cause learners problems - they learn to avoid idioms and tricky phrasal verbs, for example. It's knowledge that I often wonder about passing on. I'm sure that many business people who have to communicate with non-native speakers could improve their communication skills no end with a few hints and pointers. Perhaps that's a new career direction to take me away from my desk ...


Anonymous Kate said...

Bizarrely enough, as a Brit living in New York, I experience a similar thing when British folk come to visit. Even though, the USA and Britain both speak English (!), it seems when visitors order, the waiter is often unsure and asks for clarification, but when I speak (with my British accent), there's no confusion! In this case, I think it's more to do with which word/syllable the emphasis is placed, rather than the vocabulary itself.

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