Recently our community managress went on a personal crusade cleansing forum content which are "difficult for native English speakers to understand" https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=340089#p1370643.
Apparently there is a serious threat: "With non-native English speakers outnumbering native speakers, it’s up to Anglophones to learn how to speak their language within a global community" http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20161215-you-need-to-go-back-to-school-to-relearn-english !
This is a bit of a can of worms. (Sorry, if I use an idiom that is not immediately clear to non-native speakers, but it seems appropriate here.) The BBC article was interesting, not least because I already teach on Moodle some of the things alluded to there. The whole area of intercultural competence relies on stereotypes (which can be dreadfully wrong and extremely patronising). An idea which I'm currently exploring is "cultural neutrality" which tries to instill in learners a vanilla culture which works for most people.
In the world of online forums we still get people who overreact to the written word because they are not used to receiving content without a tone of voice attached. Add to that the mixture of language standards (even among native speakers) and there is a serious potential for misunderstanding. Also a lot of answers in forums are written by people who have little or no experience of explaining things - they are experts but not trainers. As an example, I've stopped going to Stack Exchange when I google a problem as I've *never* found an answer there which was explained in a way that a non-expert could understand. I also experienced the other side of the coin as a non-native speaker in German forums when I first came to Germany. Frankly no-one ever appeared to simplify their language, but I didn't expect that. I saw it as my job to get up to pace.
As to the issue which you refer to in this forum, I remember your original post and while I found it sharp, I didn't consider it to be offensive and if a learner in one of my classes had asked about it I would have considered it a good subject for discussion. I would prefer public criticism or a warning from a moderator to censorship in most cases, though obviously there are (a very few) occasions where censorship is in order.
All the best,
If you are explaining something technical, keep to plain english and bobs your uncle*. Use of idiom is not just an issue with people from an Anglophone background. Before I was a Moodleista I lurked extensively on JavaRanch which had a huge participation from the Indian sub-continent. They had a habit of using idioms understood in their neck of the woods but possibly not elsewhere. I used to try to recommend keeping it fair dinkum for the global audience, even though I tended to understand the meaning.
One thing that puzzled me was Indians saying "this might catch you out", and Americans not understanding. I thought you could be caught out in both baseball and cricket so the meaning would have been clear.
*(In some remote counties he may also be your father or brother)
* I thought it was "Robert's your mother's brother." ;)
I found the BBC article somewhat melodramatic and overstating what's usually obvious to anyone who's spent any time making themselves understood to people outside their own cultural/social group.
Speaking different languages is sometimes less confusing because we don't expect to understand and be understood all the time, compared to different cultural/social groups who share the same language, (e.g. Canadians, Brits, Americans, and Australians) where there's an implicit expectation of understanding and being understood. It's not just in the words, metaphors, and idiomatic expressions we use, it's the way we say them; things like sarcasm, irony, and humour often look and sound very different in different cultures.
As Andy has mentioned, much of this is lost in online, text-based environments like forums, but which I think, in some ways, makes it easier to understand and be understood; as long as people take into consideration the need to be more explicit and elaborate when they write in asynchronous discussions than when they talk face to face. As you may all well already know, this is one of the big challenges facing online educators and learners, i.e. that learners need to have well-developed literacy skills, AKA knowing how to put our thoughts into words, in order to participate and learn well.
Just my €0.02!
Thanks for the round of answers. I was aware of the danger of going off-topic. Then thought, on Lounge nothing is off-topic! Still, I will stay with the two topics which are important to me.
>>>> Recently our community managress went on a personal crusade cleansing forum content which are "difficult for native English speakers to understand" https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=340089#p1370643.
That discussion itself is not the topic. It is dead, or more accurately, frozen alive in the so called "Closed discussions" https://moodle.org/mod/forum/view.php?id=7157. Quote "Discussions can get moved here if they are highly off-topic or had become clearly unproductive. This forum is read-only." (Of course it is not the full discussion and @Andy, I am flattered to hear that you still remember the original.)
1. No, the statement which sent me spiraling was, "difficult for native English speakers to understand, let alone for people whose first language is not English" https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=340089#p1370643.
- Who are the native English speakers?
- If they (whoever they are) don't understand, nobody whose first language is not English won't understand either, right?
- How many of my posts https://moodle.org/mod/forum/user.php?id=41095 are unintelligible? (Apparently German speakers do understand me https://moodle.org/mod/forum/user.php?id=41095&course=18, a language which I learned at a much later stage of my life. Or are they too polite to complain? Talking of "them", the same question: Who is a native German speaker?)
- I understand that the native English speakers have a common language (Queen's English?, Oxford English?, ...). What do non-natives write? How do they understand each other? (Notice that I did not say _speak_ - I have seen tourists gesticulating - I mean written communication, e.g. in an on-line forum.)
- Talking of on-line forums, when I answer a post addressing the OP, do all the natives have to understand it?
There are many more. I am very keen to find answers.
2. The BBC article: "With non-native English speakers outnumbering native speakers, it’s up to Anglophones to learn how to speak their language within a global community" http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20161215-you-need-to-go-back-to-school-to-relearn-english
I noticed that it is provocative (@Matt melodramatic). In this age of Internet news one has to be inventive to be read, even a legend like BBC is not an exception. More importantly, the article suggests that there are native and non-native speakers. Back to item 1.
@Andy and Marcus, so do you say, the moodle.org forum posts need to be free of idioms and humour?
@Matt, you said
> Speaking different languages is sometimes less confusing because we don't expect to understand and be understood all the time, compared to different cultural/social groups who share the same language, (e.g. Canadians, Brits, Americans, and Australians) where there's an implicit expectation of understanding and being understood. It's not just in the words, metaphors, and idiomatic expressions we use, it's the way we say them; things like sarcasm, irony, and humour often look and sound very different in different cultures.
Liked that one! But the continuation:
> much of this is lost in online, text-based environments like forums, but which I think, in some ways, makes it easier to understand and be understood;
is more general and much harder to tackle than a forum post in moodle.org giving answer to a specific technical question, the case which triggered the whole discussion. (See also the last bullet point of item 1.)
I'm putting my language teacher hat on here... I'm absolutely not suggesting that forums should be diverse of humour and idioms. Quite the reverse. Humour, idioms and small talk belong in a forum as much as in real life - for me it's simply part of (inter-) cultural competence. One of the things I try to instill in my learners is that if they hear or read something that is offensive to them there are three possibilities to consider in this order... 1. They didn't understand it properly. 2. They or their culture don't have a monopoly on what is right and proper. 3. It might actually be offensive. In most cases they don't get to number 3. The second item can be very contentious, but language learners are often confronted with this and being able to store it, think about it, and maybe ask about it at a later date is a skill that can save a lot of embarrassment.
Coming back to the point on being hard for native speakers to understand, I remember seeing an American newspaper report of a baseball match while I was training to be an English language teacher. There were two acronyms which I didn't understand. Apart from that, I understood the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of every sentence. But I had no idea what the article was saying. It might just as well have been written in Portuguese. To a lesser extent I experience similar feelings sometimes when I read posts from (for example) Ken or Howard helping people with server setup or email issues. Although I've learned quite a lot about these areas, the language needed to work there is foreign to me and I often struggle to follow it. However I'm quite sure that people with relatively poor English who have experience in those areas can follow the advice easily. That can be seen by the thanks posted.
For those who are worried about the tone of some contributors here, I can remember the early days of Usenet where I first experienced online forums. On active forums you could find a flame war every hour (and I was involved in more than a few!) Compared to now, that was the Wild West. We have come a long way in a short time. Things have improved dramatically but as a society we are still learning about this, and we in the Moodle world are confronted with it more than many.
So I'm off to continue my acquaintance with a Christmas present - a particularly fine bottle of Talisker. Maybe that will inspire some more thoughts on this.
Seasonal Greetings and positive thoughts for the new year!
All the best,
It's an interesting point. I try not to excessively use 'domain specific' terminology, but it can save a lot of typing. Plus, I generally have no knowledge of the technical level of the person I am talking to. You therefore get the simple answer from me, "check your web server's error log" or whatever. My view is that if you don't know what I'm talking about you can ask. I do have a slight pang of guilt that this probably doesn't always work out, but if I had to assume the OP knew nothing every time I probably wouldn't answer questions at all.
I get it too. Yesterday, somebody was talking about developing an "onboarding" course. What the hell is that (I know now!)? Oh, and a "call to action button". Huh? It's just stuff... if we don't know we can look it up or ask.
Thanks for the discourse. Things are getting complicated though. My original questions are still unanswered directly:
>>> 1. Who are the native English speakers?
>>> 2. If they (whoever they are) don't understand, nobody whose first language is not English won't understand either, right?
>>> 3. How many of my posts https://moodle.org/mod/forum/user.php?id=41095 are unintelligible? (Apparently German speakers do understand me https://moodle.org/mod/forum/user.php?id=41095&course=18, a language which I learned at a much later stage of my life. Or are they too polite to complain? Talking of "them", the same question: Who is a native German speaker?)
>>> 4/ I understand that the native English speakers have a common language (Queen's English?, Oxford English?, ...). What do non-natives write? How do they understand each other? (Notice that I did not say _speak_ - I have seen tourists gesticulating - I mean written communication, e.g. in an on-line forum.)
>>> 5. Talking of on-line forums, when I answer a post addressing the OP, do all the natives have to understand it?
But new information keeps coming in. One thing that caught my eye was even native speakers don't understand each other! That shakes the whole foundations of the argument "difficult for native English speakers to understand" https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=340089#p1370643. What native speakers our community manageress was talking about?
The discussion about adapting English so that it is understood by everyone is a useful one.
Less useful are the repeated references to your deleted posts, Visvanath. Comments such as "That shakes the whole foundations of the argument "difficult for native English speakers to understand" could be interpreted as your questioning the judgement of a moderator. The site policy requires posters to "respect[ing] the decisions of forum moderators and course facilitators" Deleted posts are non-debatable.
Let's stay away from specific, personal issues and keep this conversation general.
To me, a native English speakers someone who was subjected to English from their birth and as they learned to speak English was the first language they acquired. (Or one of the first, if they had bilingual parents) They did not need to learn the rules as they absorbed them during infancy. The same would apply to German for a native German speaker.
As for native English speakers having a common language, I am not sure there is a global term for "standard English" - unless that is just it: "standard English". The terms Queen's English and "Oxford English " are UK-centric. I have seen separate texbooks advertising that they will teach you "American English" or "British English". I think, however, we can broadly agree on the common elements.
As for what non-native English speakers write, it is fascinating to watch the development of variants such as Chinglish and Globish.
"Less useful are the repeated..."
While I have no desire to dig a hole for myself, I have to say that while I know what you are saying you might think about putting that more diplomatically.
I'm a moderator in this and some other (mostly motoring related) forums and I know I don't always make the right decisions. However, someone has to wave the pointy stick and, yes, things do seem to run smoother that way. However, I normally say something like, "I try to make the best decision under the prevailing circumstances. You may not agree but please respect the decision I made for (hopefully) the good of everybody".
Let's not end up with the heavy handed moderating you see in a lot of forums.
I'll shut up now
Personal? Don't you see that it is critical for me to know whether the thousands of posts I made in moodle.org, spanning over a decade, are unintelligible, thus wasting everybody's time, or our community manageress just had a misfire?
Thanks for the definition of a native speaker, very useful.
Yes, I realize that terms Queen's English and Oxford English are UK-centric. It so happened that we in the Indian Subcontinent got English from them!
"think about putting that more diplomatically"! [bells ringing]
Frankly, I am not famous for diplomacy nor for being politically correct. No, regrets, I lived a good life without all that!
About heavy-handed moderation, I don't see why I should subject myself, or my voluntary work to such a treatment. I know one thing: I don't need a (community) manageress to cleanse my words!
You being a moderator reminded me that I was a moderator too (on moodle.org), and why I am no more. (That chapter is definitely over, so let us not to talk about it.)
Two points I consider important. Modifying or deleting a post should be a last resort and Mary is a goddess.
I think of the term politically incorrect as using language that upsets people. What upsets people changes over time and we can all think of words that were acceptable (or even polite) when they were a child but now would be better avoided. I don't recall anything Visvanath posted to be politically incorrect but when describing a spade he is unlikely to call it an wood/metal instrument for manual earth moving.
That last sentence might be a nice example of an English language culturally specific joke that might be meaningless to many people reading this (comment if it is).
Having English as your native language does not necessarily mean you are an expert at speaking or understanding it. I remember being in the USA with a group of people from the UK, who spoke no language other than English. An american pointed to a bucket and said "can you fill that from the faucet". Faucent is a word rarely used in UK English. The request was utterly incomprehensible to the English person. To me it seemed entirely clear from the context. It's a bucket, we are outdoors, you have been asked to fill it and just over there is a tap, what on earth do you think is meant? Note that the people from the UK were all students in higher education.
Everyone should try to learn a second language even if only to show what it is that so many other people have mastered. I studied Spanish for many years and hardly got past "me gato comes mucho queso" (my cat likes to eat cheese).
There can't be a global term for standard English, as there is no standard.
One interesting concept (which I try to adhere to is "International English" (Wikipedia link) which makes an attempt to cover all the bases. In particular, the section on Neutrality is interesting though I'd argue with the writer about the limited focus on creativity - the sheer number of influences in such a concept result in creativity as an inescapable side effect.
All the best,
To follow on from Andy's comment, "There can't be a global term for standard English, as there is no standard."
I think that the large, diverse, international group of people that makes up the Moodle.org community puts us firmly in the English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) camp. This is people who use English as a tool for intercultural communication, e.g. Bangladeshi and Indian call centres serving the UK and USA, air-traffic controllers, scientists, for international diplomacy and trade, and, of course, for internet forums (and flame wars, especially on Facebook!).
Funny that you should refer to ELF as I consciously ducked out of using it. It's possibly one of the more appropriate acronyms flying around, but I really try to avoid the compartmentalisation of all the possible student groupings. I have a number of friends in the business who are ridiculously hung up on whether it's an EFL, ESL, EAL or whatever course. I try to stick to the more general ELT in my musings/rants as I find the dynamics and differences in even a small, relatively homogeneous group to be more than enough to manage without having to decide how to classify the course. I just aim to make my learners better at the end of a session than they were at the start.
EFL is not a bad concept though as it's sufficiently broad (and it certainly applies in this case!). For me though, it would be the thin end of the wedge so I'll stick to my ELT for now!
Coming back to Visvanath's original beef here, I wonder if rather than to focus on whether the language was appropriate, having the option for forum members to flag a post as "inappropriate" would be an option (maybe as the lowest ranking)? This would at least foster open debate, and would probably cover the vast majority of incidents. After all, the communication here is pitched vastly over the level in some Facebook groups I've had the misfortune to experience.
All the best,
I agree that it's important not to split hairs and create unnecessary acronyms in an already acronym laden field.
The ones I find necessary and helpful are:
- English Language Teaching (ELT) = Teaching English as a foreign and/or second language
- English as a Second Language (ESL) = Learning English while living and working/studying in a host country where the dominant language is English.
- English as a Foreign Language (EFL) = Learning English while not living and working/studying in a host country where the dominant language is English.
- English as a Lingua Franc (ELF) = Using English as a non-native speaker as a common language for international/intercultural communication.
- English for Specific Purposes (ESP) = A catch-all category which simply means that the students have specialised sets of language needs, e.g. for a particular job or course/programme, scientific English, aviation English, or business English.
In each case, the emphasis is centred on the needs of the students and why they are learning and using English. It doesn't dictate how students are taught or if they have any direct instruction or attend classes at all. They're just some helpful, general categories to help teachers and curriculum developers think more clearly about who they're teaching.
The table in this article gives some orientation for your first point. However the tricky aspect is the number of people who speak English as an additional language (the last column). As it states, this data is collected differently in different countries, so it can only give an impression. For example, my experience in India tells me the figure is at least accurate, if not conservative. On the other hand, the suggestion that over half the population of Germany speak English requires another definition of "speak."
Your second point is possibly true, but doesn't have to be. Someone can possess a relatively low level of English language competence, but still understand a complex piece of information due to their own technical knowledge acquired in their native language.
For the same reason a post you make may well be unintelligible to me due to the subject matter. That has nothing to do with your language skills.
Native speakers have the advantage that they can interpolate language data much better than non-natives. Even after many years in Germany, I still do this on a (probably) hourly basis. A native speaker uses a word which i don't know and from the context I have to come up with a meaning. That happens pretty seamlessly now. At the start, it didn't!
Obviously, if the OP doesn't understand your answer, then there is going to be a problem, but you can't be expected to know the language standard of the poster. I can often guess quite accurately but it's part of my job. Having said that, there are native speakers who write truly hideous English, but understand well-formed English perfectly.
As you say, it's complicated.
Good slide! (as they say in this part of the world)
Thanks for the loads of information! English is not my subject, neither my language, not even my (chosen) second language. So the information you both have provided is very useful.
@Andy, thanks for answering some (points 1 and 2) of my (weird) questions. I wish, things were less complicated. As I wrote earlier to Mary ("wasting everybody's time"), it is very important for me to know which way.
Trying to digest the available answers, more questions pop up:
6. Now the term "native English speaker" is defined, who has the authority to talk for them?
7. Is being a "native English speaker" some sort of a qualification? For example, to disqualify a forum post, even if it is about a subject the said native English speaker has no clue?
Who are the native English speakers?
If English is your only language then you would be a native English speaker. If English is your primary and preferred language then you are (probably) a native speaker. But as I have suggested previously, being a native speaker does not mean you are good at speaking or understanding it.
It is a topic of common humour in the UK that the Dutch and Germans speak better and more correct English than many British people. That doesn't mean that the average person from those countries who speaks English better than people from the UK, just that we frequently meet people from their who speak it exceptionally well.
There is no one standard English, though if you were to consider a standard it probably should not be that from the UK as we are a small percentage of the numbers of people who speak it natively. I'm not sure we should strive particularly hard for a de-jure standard English, language is for communication and changes over time. This is illustrated by British people who get sniffy about words that Americans use (e.g. butt for what the British call a bum) but are actually words where the use has died out over time. Let's not start on about fanny....
One of the reasons I am interested in people learning and speaking English is that my question types are particularly suitable for language learners.
To follow on again...
Re: "But as I have suggested previously, being a native speaker does not mean you are good at speaking or understanding it."
I remember reading a study where they assessed the English language levels of mostly native speaker students on graduation and put the average level at around CEFR B1 - That's intermediate English and by no means proficient. A native speaker with B1 competence can barely write short essays. I'm not exactly sure how universities can justify graduating them.
Overseas students are usually required to have certifications in English, e.g. IELTS, TOEFL, or Cambridge CAE or CPE, at much higher levels, i.e. B2 - C1, which represents a full 1 or 2 years (6 or more hours per week) of sustained, guided English language study, so the non-native speakers may be skewing the overall English proficiency levels in the upward direction.
In terms of cultural competence and how well people (native or non-native) can make sense of each others' utterances and writings, an interesting concept is that of symbolic interactionism. It really underlines the subjective nature of how we use language to make meaning: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolic_interactionism In short, just how much of what you say and write do other people understand in the ways you intended? Personally, I find research methods like Grounded Theory with its line-by-line coding incredibly difficult to do because I'm interpreting what the people said through my own perspective which inevitably makes the interpreted meanings partly mine. Is that what they really meant to say?!
Monolingualism (speaking only one language) seems to be a mostly European and English speaking countries' (i.e. colonial) phenomenon. In most other countries, it's common for people to speak two or more languages proficiently. It's almost a given among speakers of two or more languages that you have to check what others have understood of what you've said, i.e. to negotiate meaning during a conversation. I've seen native English speakers get unreasonably weary and roll their eyes when multilinguals repeat stuff back to them (i.e. reflecting their understanding back to the speaker) and say essentially the same thing in different ways (rewording, paraphrasing) in order to clarify what they mean. I don't think they really understand what is happening or why. I think monolinguals have a lot to learn from multilinguals
I didn't see the original post but... I have been in the past (and probably will be again) in trouble with this sort of thing. I have a dry sense of humour. My wife says that I think I'm funny but nobody else does. At least she's a good cook and isn't all that ugly
I've really pissed some people off in these forums in the past without trying and without meaning it, but looking back I might have liked someone to say "did you really mean to say that?". I think, especially as PHMs or the "elder statesmen" of moodle forums if you like, we are probably best to strive for a form of professional neutrality.
"All human efforts to communicate -- even in the same language -- are equally utopian, equally luminous with value, and equally worth the doing." - Ortega y Gasset (as paraphrased by Edith Grossman in introduction to her translation of Don Quixote.)