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).

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