There is no single “English” language
English is a strange language because, unlike other languages like Chinese, French, Korean, Japanese, Turkish, or Spanish, there’s no governing body or main organization that helps regulate and manage the English language. There are also two competing standards of English that are commonly taught around the world: American English and British or “Queen’s” English (Sorry Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and Ireland). So, depending on who taught you, you may learn very different forms of the language that are not standardized, or create a common standard everyone agrees on, by a single organization across the globe.
And lastly, many people from around the world learn English as a second language, which means that they may be used to making certain sounds in their native language that may make it harder for someone to understand who is not familiar with their native language. For instance, I have taught a few native-Japanese speakers English. Japanese does not make a big difference between the English “r” sound (/r/ phoneme) and “l” sound (/l/ phoneme) because there isn’t one in Japanese. Korean, on the other hand, does make a difference between the sounds (although it is less clear in Korean). This led to a few moments of confusion between Korean and Japanese native speakers speaking English.
But all of this confusion sort of makes English special. There are lots of different forms of dialects that maybe…just maybe…could be separate languages in their own right. There is no “weird” English, but rather a wonderful myriad of different types of English that have combined with other languages to create lots of different forms of expression. Let’s look at a few different accents, dialects, and creoles in English:
As you can see, there are lots of different ways of expressing English.
That being said, however, how can you get better at understanding someone who speaks English in a completely different way than what you are used to? Here are a few suggestions that will lead to English success:
1. Pay attention to intonation and sounds
Each video above has English that is spoken differently. One of the main ways their English sounds different is partially due to the intonation and sounds that the speaker is using. Intonation is the melody or pattern that people are using to speak. This is different from “sound,” which simply refers to the actual shape of the individual noises that are created to make a certain word. For instance, English speakers will often raise the sound of their voice when asking a yes/no question. If you hear a rise in the sound, you can expect someone is asking you a question. These two things are very important when trying to understand what another person is saying.
2. Context Clues
When we are listening to someone (especially in a foreign language) we might focus too much on each particular word that someone is saying, rather than trying to understand the context and the main idea of what that person is saying.
The idea here is not to focus on each word said, even though it is very tempting to do so. On the other hand, the main idea is to focus on the general message. When you are listening to someone who you are having a hard time understanding, try to figure out the main message the person is saying. For instance, try figuring out the following:
- What is the main idea your colleague is talking about? What is the topic of conversation?
- What is the tone that the speaker is trying to convey or show?
3. Get used to listening to different forms of English:
Below is a list of a few resources where you can hear people who may not be native speakers of British or American Standard English so that you can familiarize, or become accustomed to, different ways of speaking English:
Al-Jazeera English is an excellent resource for listening to English by a non-native English speaker. Al-Jazeera has a lot of hosts from around the world speaking English, as well as interviews with a lot of people who are not native English speakers. They are able to produce a great deal of content that can be useful for understanding English speakers from the Middle-East, Africa, and South Asia.
CNN’s “African Voices” is also excellent at interviewing people from across Africa and provides some very interesting interviews on the exciting change taking place on the continent. You can hear people speaking English from across the continent, whether they are Kenyan, Nigerian, or South Africa; all have very distinct ways of speaking their own forms of English. Also, there’s some pretty interesting stuff on how Africa is changing.
Arirang News is a South Korean-based English news service that brings on a lot of speakers to talk about issues happening across the Korean peninsula. Many of their guests speak Korean as their first language but are interviewed in English, which allows you to hear how someone talks from Korea.
And lastly, it should be noted that it takes a bit of time to get used to how someone speaks English if you and them are not native speakers of English. In fact, many native speakers of English may sometimes have a hard time understanding someone who is not a native speaker. In that case, don’t worry. It is okay to ask someone to repeat what they just said, or ask them to clarify what they just said.
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Governing body – (phrase) a group of people who formulate or organize policy relating to a certain institution.
myriad – (adj) a countless, extremely high number.
to standardize – (v) to bring everything to a set standard or established measurement
creole – (n) a language that has native and foreign elements that combine together to create a new language. Some famous examples are Haitian Creole, Jamaican Patois, and Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea.
to convey – (v) to communicate or to show something
intonation – (n)
to familiarize – (v) to make someone acquainted or used to something.