By: Marc Wessels

The Dutch generally have a decent command of the English language. English is taught to children from primary school on and almost everyone is able to write and speak English to some degree. But communication between native speakers and non-native speakers is not always easy. Why? What are the reasons for communication issues between non-natives and native speakers? And how can you prevent miscommunication?

English spoken by the English

It may seem strange, but in practice non-native speakers often have trouble understanding native speakers of English. English is taught in different ways depending on the target group. Chances are two non-native speakers will have an easier time understanding each other than a native speaker and a non-native speaker.

The satirical television programme Smack the Pony once aired a sketch about a lady wanting to enrol in an ‘English as a Foreign Language’ course. The lady manages to baffle the employees of the language centre with her request, as she is a native speaker of English. She then exclaims: “But I only speak English-English! I don’t know how to speak it as a foreign language. Foreign people cannot understand a word I say!”

What complicates communication between native speakers and non-native speakers?

English is used as a lingua franca in the international business world. In these situations, non-native speakers of different languages use another foreign language to communicate. The fact that they were taught English in the same way helps them communicate. But a lingua franca is usually very different from the ‘rich language’ spoken by native speakers. A lingua franca is more functional in an international context and is not grammatically perfect or completely fluent.

The difference between non-native English and native English

Scientific research has shown that major differences can be identified between the English used by native speakers and the English used by non-natives. One notable example is the pronunciation of the ‘th’ sound. Non-natives tend to pronounce the ‘th’ as a ‘t’ in words such as think and that. Non-native speakers may also pluralise non-count nouns. One advice, two advices, one research, two researches. Subtle differences in sounds and grammatical inaccuracies make it easier for two non-natives to understand each other than a native and a non-native.

But isn’t non-native English often just poor English?

One of the most prominent researchers of English as lingua franca, Jennifer Jenkins, does not believe non-native English is simply poor English. There are perfectly good explanations for why non-native speakers of English struggle with the ‘th’ sound. The ‘th’ sound is not found in many other languages. Proper use of the ‘th’ sound is also not essential for understanding English, which is why substitutes such as ‘t’ occur. By the same token, improper use of plurals does not usually lead to misunderstandings.

Adapting to the lingua franca

To foster good communication between native speakers and non-native speakers of English, native speakers must adapt to the lingua franca. Good articulation, for example, is vital. Native speakers must also focus on reducing their accent as much as possible. Jenkins believes that language education should focus more on international communication, with a special focus on foreign accents in English.

So whose English is the right English?

There is no easy way to describe what constitutes proper English. What’s far more important is finding ways for non-native speakers and native speakers to communicate. Focus on differences in pronunciation that might result in a difference in meaning, such as words like bag and back or snag and snack. In the international business world correct English is important, but understanding each other is even more important. This is why non-native speakers learn English, but native speakers could also make a greater effort to improve communication with non-natives.

Relocating to the Netherlands?

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