It’s a reasonably familiar scenario: you’re working at a cafe, or as a receptionist, or you’re having to speak to customers on the phone, and one particular person you come across happens to be speaking English as a second language. They muddle up tenses, their syntax is all over the place, and they use gestures and intonation almost as much as the actual language. Would you say they need to work on their English?
You could do. And probably quite a few people would agree with you. It’s understandable that you may find it awkward or somewhat difficult to interact with someone speaking a very muted version of your mother tongue, and yes, it does normally take a little longer to find a middle ground of communication where you each understand what the other is trying to say. But the idea that they need more practice with the language, that they need to master it more completely, or that they could do with a pronunciation manual are things that we, as first-language speakers of English, find it all too easy to say and less easy to fully understand.
For a start, English is a bastard of a language to master. I’ve been surrounded by it constantly since I was born and I still can’t pronounce ‘chasm’ right without thinking about it first. But for people who are learning it as a second language, even if they’ve been exposed to it since early childhood, they’ll have to adapt their experience with their first to be able to master the second. If they didn’t start learning it until after they were around five or six, it’ll take much more effort and dedication – children that age can’t pick up a language nearly as easily as they learn their mother tongue. And it only gets more difficult the longer you leave it.
It also works wondrously in our favour that English happens to be the widely accepted global language of communication, or ‘lingua franca’. It would not be unusual for a trade between a Vietnamese fisherman and an Indian restaurant to conduct their transactions in global variations of English, or ‘Globish’, because it is the language with which the two of them are most likely to be able to find common ground. However, the versions of the language they’d use would sound to us like ‘broken English’; the lexicon related to their occupations would be fairly accurate, but most of the grammatical words (determiners, conjunctions, prepositions etc) would be omitted. And get this: they still understand each other.
No, it’s not sorcery, or some weird linguistic sixth sense. They just happen to be working behind a revolutionary movement called descriptivism. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, descriptivism is a kind of attitude towards language that supports non-standard usage of language, so long as the communicators still understand what is being said. The flip side, prescriptivism, would argue that standard, ‘correct’ forms of a language must be used at all times to prevent a) any possible confusions or misunderstandings, and b) the decay of said language. Which, in my opinion, is bollocks. Half the texts I send have at least one spelling mistake or autocorrect mishap in there somewhere, and I never land myself in trouble by being completely and utterly misunderstood from the fact that I wrote ‘what the duck’ instead of ‘what the fuck’.
It’s easy to be mardy towards people who don’t speak your language to its full extent – maybe your pet peeve is people saying ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’, and that’s fine. But some variations, like creoles, have become official languages in their own right. So technically, if we want to be pedantic, the people who say they’re not speaking it ‘properly’ are now incorrect. They are speaking properly: maybe they’re just rocking a Guyanese creole that they’ve been speaking since childhood. Who are we to tell them they’re wrong?
We can’t understand every word they say, but with simple cooperation we can reach a comfortable middle ground where we accommodate our language choices to fit around the knowledge of people we talk to. Erase the idea that they’re speaking ‘broken English’ – they’re using as much as they actually need to communicate, and it’s only due to your lucky-dip linguistic advantage that you’re in this supposed position of power.