At a recent conference held in the town of Aarhus, Denmark, I had a wonderful opportunity to observe people from all over the globe communicate.

More than a thousand participants used English as their main working language; and everybody spoke the same language in more ways than one. In between and after the sessions one could see spontaneously formed groups of researchers animatedly discussing various problems in their own mother-tongue(s) too. I listened to a group of young scientists from Germany, Czech Republic, the USA, the UK and France talk about their post-doctorate courses in France. Their concerns and hopes are similar to anybody else’s. As an educator, I was curious about the ways they all studied English, and of the linguistic difficulties they faced when they first moved to another country to continue their studies and their research.

“I can say all I need, but I still have problems understanding the answers!” confided a young Italian. These words were echoed by Russians, Slovaks, Spaniards and many others. “Have you ever heard the Texans speak? They don’t sound like the English language that I learned at school!” lamented one young man. “I find I can understand Americans better because I watch a lot of TV shows. "When I hear Scotsmen however, I almost cry!" comments a young woman. "Dudes, has anyone ever worked in Australia? That’s so difficult!" And so on. Yet all the participants had no problems understanding each other. This gave me several insights into the issues at hand, and into the possible ways and means of remedying the situation.

  • It looks like all of us non-native speakers studied more or less the same version of English, so we can understand each other better than we understand any native speakers. The key word here is studied: for us, the English language was one of the subjects at school and university. We learned the vocabulary, grammar and the four traditional skills. Surprisingly, it may mean for instance that we spell better and can cite the relevant grammar rules or topical vocabulary without giving it much thought. On the other hand, if it’s never occurred to us to double-check what our teacher taught us, we may make rather silly mistakes and not even be aware of them. For instance, I know a teacher who blithely pronounced “bee-soo-sleigh” (bicycle), and lots of her students followed suit. “Gun” instead of “gone” is practically a classic.
  • The communicative approach in ELT is widely recognized today. The shift from the formerly used grammar-translation method is a reality. What remains is probably the necessity to, first, learn about as many variants of English as possible, by listening to any audios and watching any videos easily found on the web. Second, once we teach ourselves we can relay the knowledge to our students. Naturally it is impossible to learn all the modern co-existing varieties. However, forewarned is forearmed. A person who talks to a native speaker from any English-speaking country does not need to fall into a blue funk if they cannot understand their vis-à-vis at first. All it takes is a little practice. Our ears need to get attuned to the new cadences.
  • One of the most difficult subjects we need to teach is not exactly related to ELT per se. It is really hard to explain to anybody that they need to work at their difficulties to overcome the problems. Nobody else will do it for them. If they don’t understand their work or study partners, they should not only ask questions, but also find the time to listen more, to repeat what they hear, to train harder. “I’m sorry; can you please repeat it a little slower?”
  • Listening and hearing seem to be two sides of the same coin. We can listen to a dialogue or a story and even repeat parts of it, but we may have trouble actually hearing what is said. I find the following simple tricks very useful. If possible, listen to children speak. Their speech is usually faster than that of adults; they don’t pronounce all the sounds distinctly, and they may mispronounce a lot. I have seen seven-year-olds in a US school who were learning to read. After an explanation of the question words WHAT, WHERE, WHY, WHEN they all stared at the word WHO and tried to read it aloud. Frustrated, a child shouted, “WHAT sort of word is that?!” This little example is very helpful at lessons of phonetics; it helps learners understand that even native speakers do not have it made when it comes to listening and hearing, reading and speaking.
  • The Free Dictionary is one of my favorite professional sites which I visit almost daily. When I listen to the new words, I notice that the female speaker pronounces them in a much more traditional comprehensible way than the male one. So I listen to his version more, to train my ear well.
  • Listening to songs and trying to sing along is a good way to train one’s listening and pronunciation. It is easy to sing along with, say, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles. When it is The Rolling Stones, an episode from the film “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” comes to mind. In it, the inimitable Whoopi Goldberg tries to decipher the words and then yells in frustration, “Mick, Mick! Speak English!” As an old music aficionado told me, “Modern singers with rare exceptions often have no idea what they are saying”. For us ELT professionals, one rule works when we self-train: the harder the better.

Strolling around in Aarhus, I saw a lovely sign over one of the cafes. “ALL PEOPLE SMILE IN THE SAME LANGUAGE”. We can only hope that mutual understanding is possible.

 

 

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