Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Are you speaking English?

English, we are told and firmly believe, has become the global language of international communication. True. It is the second language in countless countries and taught in schools across the world. True. There are hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of English speakers worldwide. Yes. But can you or I understand a word of what many or most of them say? Probably not. 

Maybe that should not be too surprising. I often struggle unsuccessfully with a Geordie or a Glaswegian accent. But I was quite surprised to be walking past a primary school in Clarens when a teacher was shouting so loudly at her class that every word could be heard in the street outside. Yes, I think it is fair to say that every word was plainly audible. But in what language? Obviously not English or we'd have recognised it. Not Afrikaans because it has an unmissable twang. Possibly Sotho? The lilt wasn't quite right. A passing postman was as amused as we were at the shrieking teacher and we grinned at each other as we stood and listened. So I asked him: what language was she speaking?

English, came the reply. 

English is spoken in the shops and restaurants. It is even widely taught in the schools in Lesotho, where state schools have to charge a fee as a condition of IMF funding back in the eighties. But again and again we cannot follow what is being said. Hardly surprising when the teachers themselves have such a strong accent. 

I wonder what accent of English is being taught in China? Will a Chinese and an African school student who have both learned English be able to understand each other? Will I understand either of them?

At least we communicate easily with the Dutch tourists we meet here. In fluent English on both sides!

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