Browse Month

September 2020

On Speaking English Poorly

I saw an interesting question in my Quora feed:

As a native English speaker, when you hear foreign people speak bad English do you hate it?

Generally speaking, my answer would be no; while I would probably notice it, hate is a strong word. I’d probably react to it more out of confusion or surprise than in an outright negative way; in this context even dislike is stronger than what I would intend. I think it’s implied by the question that the foreign person is from a country where English is not spoken as a first language, and thus their native language is not English.  Learning a second language is difficult. In addition to English, I am also able to speak some Chinese (~CEFR B1) and German (~A2). However, Chinese was generally my worst subject through middle and high school in Singapore and I wouldn’t be confident in delivering an impromptu speech or discussing philosophy in Chinese. So far I’ve found German easier, but speaking is still by far my weakest of the four main language skills there. I almost certainly can’t speak the person’s native language as well as they can. (The case where the person’s native language is English would be a little more frustrating, but even then, hate is a strong word!)

It’s probably more interesting to consider the cases where I would be annoyed and think this is justified. To analyse this, I’d first look at what impact speaking English poorly might have, and then consider the conditions under which these impacts would be unacceptable.

Spoken English is primarily used as a medium of communication, so to some extent I would evaluate the consequences of speaking English badly based on how much this impacts communication.  Firstly, even when communication is achieved without any further questions or disruption, I would find that conversations may still not flow as well as they would with a fluent interlocutor. This is because my brain may need to take extra effort to decode the meaning of what is being said. I do notice small errors such as “There are less apples in my bag” (fewer – apples are generally countable) or “Dancing makes fun” (dancing is fun – this is a word-for-word translation from German, Tanzen macht Spaß). If there is limited grammatical structure to the sentences, even more effort is needed. I can work out what is likely intended when one says “Epistemology means read knowing of part reasoning” (“Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge”), but I would probably struggle to enjoy a philosophical discussion with such a speaker.

Secondly, even if successful communication is achieved, it may not be as nuanced as intended. If I was to describe a performance that I would rate a 5/10, I could say that. However, a 5/10 could be a 5/10 because it was undistinguished across the board, in which case I might use “unspectacular” or “banal”. On the other hand, a 5/10 with distinct strong and weak components might be described as “a very mixed bag”, or I might feel “ambivalent” about it. I can’t do this as neatly in Chinese (平庸 for 5/10 in general, but distinguishing the types is hard without circumlocution) or German (“nicht so gut”, but I’m not sure how to go about the rest – “nicht so gut überall” vs. “teilweise sehr gut, teilweise furchtbar”?), to the point where I’d not bother communicating these thoughts as precisely, unless how the 5/10 score came about was important to the conversation.

Finally, of course communication breakdowns and errors can happen. These can arise from plain errors in vocabulary (thinking “tomorrow” means “yesterday”, or “sanguine” means “pessimistic”), expressions that are inadvertently inconsistent (“I will eat the fish and drank the white wine with it” – is this meal in the future or past?) or unintended connotations (not realising “imbecile” or “wanker” are general insults and don’t just mean “of low intelligence” and “person who masturbates” respectively).

In general, I think as long as a person is making a genuine good-faith effort and is not in a position where I’d expect them to have fluent English, I would certainly not hate, or for that matter, dislike the situation. It may affect the extent to which I’m able to communicate with them for pleasure, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be pleased to make their acquaintance. It would probably mean I would avoid choosing discussion topics and activities that would require extremely precise, clear communication, but that’s fine – that covers only a minority of my interests. Furthermore, if they’re learning English I would be interested in helping them – maybe they could teach me a bit of their native language too.

I’d see a person as not making a genuine effort at communication if I think they are trying to obstruct it. This is difficult to assess; it’s not clear how to distinguish a lack of ability and a lack of will here. I think this mainly covers deliberate errors when I’m confident the person would know better – this introduces unnecessary overheads or even barriers in communication.

The good-faith part of this would be broken by a breach of trust. For example, the person gets angry or accuses me of speaking English poorly or deliberately obstructing communication. Alternatively, the person blames me for a miscommunication that arises because something was clearly said to mean something following standard English (even if that’s not how the person interpreted it).  Thankfully, I haven’t had many experiences in this vein.

Finally, there are circumstances where I’d expect people to be able to speak English fluently. Typically, this happens as part of a transactional relationship where some communication is required, and English is chosen as the medium of communication (which would be by default in the UK). The level of fluency required here is of course variable, depending on said relationship’s nature. In literary performances I’d expect halting and/or “bad” English to be intentional for some dramatic effect; using English poorly inadvertently here would be highly questionable. Similarly, I’d want my fellow software engineers, lawyers and tax advisors to be fluent because the issues I’d be discussing with them are likely to require this. Statements like “I received a billion US dollars in my account based in Luxembourg in July, converted it to pounds sterling in August and remitted it to the UK two months after that” need to be understood exactly, and any error in the timeline (like thinking a billion is 1012 instead of 109 which is standard in English, the remittance happened in September instead of October, confusing US dollars with Australian or Singaporean dollars, or pounds sterling with Egyptian or Syrian pounds) could have serious consequences. I’d expect some (but less) fluency from say service staff in the UK – enough to understand and complete my requests accurately would suffice. I might be a little annoyed if someone advertises a buy-one-get-one-free offer as an unconditional 50% discount (they’re only equivalent for an even number of items!) or repeatedly brings a fork when I’ve asked for a spoon (once is fine).

On Eating Out to Help Out

The UK Government ran an interesting promotion called “Eat Out to Help Out” for the month of August. Meals eaten in a restaurant, pub or cafe (including soft drinks, but only soft drinks) were eligible for a 50% discount up to a maximum of £10 per person; the customer would pay 50% and the restaurant could claim the remaining 50% of the price back from the Government. The restaurant doesn’t pay anything (apart from the administrative cost of giving the discount and claiming it – there were multiple occasions where I’ve heard staff explain to a diner why the calculation wasn’t as they expected – and possibly some cash-flow/time-value-of-money concerns).

My initial reaction to this was that it was a nice bonus, along the line of “every little helps”. The phrase “bread and circuses” did come to mind, though for me at least this doesn’t really move the needle of my political opinions much. I could see how it could stimulate the economy at least in the short term (granted, with a risk of making the COVID-19 situation worse: the Soho area was extremely packed on the evenings I went there). That said, I also noted that it was a little bit limited in that the rebates are proportional to one’s existing expenditures on food, which may be a (faulty) proxy for existing standard of living. A person who can’t afford to eat out at all can’t benefit, and my individual meals usually cost more like £10 and so I might benefit less than someone whose meals do regularly hit that threshold.

Furthermore, there was no restriction on the number of times the promotion could be used, meaning that one could have an appetiser in one bill, a main course in a second, a dessert in a third and all the soft drinks in a fourth, potentially getting a £40 per head discount (and this could be extended even further if one goes for a tapas-style meal, for instance)! There were also some further loopholes, such as taking away leftovers, and the timing of Sunday dinner (if the bill is issued after midnight, it is Monday and so the discount applies).

Nonetheless, given the scheme was in place it is something I can appreciate, and I figured I might as well enjoy its benefits (while taking appropriate precautions to mitigate risks of actually catching COVID i.e. social distancing, masks, sanitiser, avoiding excessively busy places). I pay a fair chunk of Income Tax plus the odd bit on dividends and capital gains, so in a sense this is reclaiming some of that, especially since I’d expect taxes to rise soon in the light of needing to pay for stimulating policies, this one included. I ate out considerably more than I would have normally – this meant going out for some lunches on days without a lot of meetings, and some dinners at 7.30 or 8 pm after work (instead of eating at 6 pm and then having a short evening session). I figured that the government subsidised my meals to the tune of about £200 over the 13 days of the promotion. However, one could potentially squeeze in 10 restaurant visits per week for the 4 full weeks, and 4 visits on the final Monday, for a total of 44 visits – £440 if one spends £10 at each place, and possibly more because of the aforementioned exploits.

Of course, a consequence of this is that my August food budget went through the roof. My meals at home in terms of raw ingredients probably rarely cost in excess of £3. Although it’s not exactly logical, I often found myself ordering embellishments or more premium options to get the bill close to either side of £20; that is still a cost of £10 to me. My average expenditure on eating out was £190 in the three months to August but £325 in August; on the other hand, for groceries it was £300 in the three months to August and £230 in August. I mitigated some of the costs here by stacking offers – most notably, American Express had a Shop Small promotion that offers £5 off a £10 expense at selected retailers, so £20 becomes £10 from Eat Out to Help Out, and then £5.

In terms of the food itself, it wasn’t as much of an adventure as I originally thought it might be, perhaps because I was tired out from work and was also alone for most of the promotion; I met Tom on the last day for pizza but I think that was it. I didn’t actually end up trying any new places as part of this – it looks to be a string of familiar and comfortable establishments. I ate a lot of Japanese food. I had ramen at three different places (Kanada-Ya, Tonkotsu and the Japan Centre), sushi on a number of occasions (Sagamiya, Sushimania, Dozo and even Wasabi), and other cooked dishes (Eat Tokyo for grilled meats and fish, Coco Ichibanya for Japanese curry, Zen Cafe for melon pans). Four Seasons roast duck and 97 Old Town salted fish and chicken fried rice made the cut too. I also visited pubs a bunch of times (for food; alcoholic drinks weren’t included as part of the promotion). I think my preferences when eating out tend to result in this because a lot of these dishes are difficult for me to make (or make well) at home.

The promotion in terms of the Government subsidising diners has ended, though a number of restaurants and cafes are still continuing with this policy into September, some in a reduced form (e.g. 20 or 25% off instead of 50%, or only including a subset of the days or mealtimes). I haven’t sought out any of these yet, though, and have eaten at home a fair bit more this month – I do like my cooking enough that I would miss it if I don’t get to eat it for some time.