Even More on Second Languages

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In two items last week, a short one about the spectacle of Harvard undergrads singing a parody song in Chinese, and a longer one full of testimonials from language-learners around the world, I examined the question of why two non-native speakers of a language could often understand each other more easily than if either of them was dealing with a native speaker.

It turns out that actual knowledge exists on this point! One academic wrote in to say:

There's a name for this:  the "mismatched interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit," as demonstrated by two linguists, Tessa Bent and Ann Bradlow.

You can find the Bent-Bradlow paper on PubMed and other sources.

In the realm of anecdotage, readers write in as follows. First, about Semitic languages:

>>My experience is a little different than the majority of your respondents, but I think I have a good idea why. I speak Arabic as a second language, but the context which I learned was primarily through contact with my family and their friends, rather than the classroom. Granted, I did learn in a classroom as well, but most of the people in my class were in the same situation that I was in (parents are 1st or 2nd generation immigrants, native speakers in the family, etc.) As a result, I have little difficulty understanding native speakers*, but have a bear of a time understanding non-native speakers (and vice versa).

The notable exception is speaking with non-native Jewish speakers that also speak Hebrew. I find that I have a hard time understanding what sound they are trying to make. Also, non-native speakers are more likely to speak and understand textbook MSA, rather than conversational Arabic. I'm sure this situation is relatively unique, but it's another data point.
 
* As it made eavesdropping on my parents easier as a kid. In fact, my comprehension is better than my ability to speak.<<

Next, from Japan:

>>I speak Japanese as a second language and would add the following
observations to those you've already compiled:

 -  I find it easier to understand non-native Japanese speakers, but I find it easier to speak to native Japanese speakers. This is because I tend to feed off the rhythms, accent, and tone of the person speaking to me and if that rhythm is broken, I find my own output becomes broken as well.

- I find that if I speak to a Japanese person one-on-one (with my wife for example), that I am able to understand or at least make out syllabic-ally everything that is being said. However, I often have trouble understanding overheard conversation between Japanese natives (for example, on the train or on the subway). Part of this is just that my brain start to tune out and everything they say becomes a blur, whereas, were they speaking English, I would be unable to block them out even if I tried

- With people that I am used to hearing speak Japanese or relatively familiar topics, this effect decreases. For example, at the office, I understand my coworkers overheard conversation a majority of the time. However, if we were to leave the office and go to a bar, I might have more trouble.

- I would echo the points one of your readers made about English-to-English translation, ie if you had a native and  non-native  English speaker having a conversation, it is often more effective to simplify the native's English than to try to interpret by switching languages.

- Further to this, I find it nearly impossible to maintain conversation when I'm speaking one language and the other person replies in the other. My wife tries to get me to do this by asking me to speak English and responding in Japanese,  but I find it difficult. If she responds to me in English, however, there is usually no problem.<<

From Fred Kaplan, of Slate:

>>I remember once going to a press conference in Moscow. One of the people on the panel started speaking, and I lit up. "Who is this guy?" I thought to myself. "I'm understanding every word he's saying!" Turns out it was Anders Aslund, the Swedish economist who specialized in Russian matters and spoke Russian that was fluent but still, apparently, foreign enough that a fellow foreigner (he also spoke fluent English) could understand him perfectly.<<

About enunciation:

>>I think the comment "from an Israeli" touched on one important factor, but didn't go far enough. Non-native speakers tend to be very scrupulous about their pronunciation; they get pronunciations drilled into their head right from the start. Once they learn how the French "a" is pronounced, they're going to use that exact same sound every time they see an "a".

By contrast, as a native English speaker who grew up in a midwestern family in Dallas, I pronounce "wildflower" as "wahldflahr," but "wild" by itself has a long "i" and "flower" by
itself has two distinct syllables. And of course there's the "ch" sound that miraculously appears for most American English speakers when a word ending with "t" is followed by a word beginning with "y" - "get you" becomes "getchyoo". So it's not just that non-native speakers pronounce the sounds more clearly, it's that they pronounce them more consistently from word to word.<<

From a translator living in China:

>>I enjoyed your post on the (relative) ease of understanding fellow second-language speakers -- but with respect to China (which is the one-inch cardboard tube I see the world through), what I think you miss is that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people speak Mandarin as a second -- or call it auxiliary -- language. For that reason, perhaps, it can be harder to understand a Henanese person speaking Mandarin (of which he speaks a dialect natively) than, say, a Hangzhounese person (who speaks natively a different but related language).

Though for that matter, it might be interesting to drill down a little further and see whether people find second-language speakers of closely related languages easier or harder to understand than second-language speakers of unrelated or more distantly related languages. I've been in China for about eight years now, and can understand Inner Mongolian friends (whose first language was Mongolian, and who didn't learn Mandarin until middle school) more easily than friends whose first language was, say, Eastern Min (which is Sinitic, but branched off pretty early).

Scots is en even more fun example: I teach a translation course..  and when I feel the need to scare some sense into the students, I give them a bit of Brian Holton's unpublished Scots translation of "Outlaws of the Marshes" (or, as he calls it, "The Mossflow") as a way of reminding them of the possibilities of English.  (For what it's worth, I actually do think it's the best translation out there.)

And of course I tell students that Sichuanhua is the Scots of Chinese, and will bring in various explanations about sound-change rules before adding that people in Sichuan are, unlike most, proud of their accent.

(Being a native speaker of a bizarre combination of Donegal Irish and Donegal English and South Philadelphia Yeenlish, I tend to hold off on the finer points. There be dragons.)<<

From another academic:

>>Okay, two more on why it seems easier to understand other non-native speakers of a language.

1) Medieval Latin is a much simpler form of Latin than classical, Roman Latin because it was everyone's second language. Over centuries, Irish, Italians, and Norwegians all speaking to one another in the same language simplified and streamlined it, to make it easier for everyone to understand. It was a working language, the language of the church and professional elites everywhere. One aspect of understanding what Renaissance was and why it happened was that Petrarch and others like him noticed how much more complex, sophisticated, and, to their ears, beautiful, the classical Latin of Cicero and Horace was. They then tried to recreate that flowery, rhetorical style in their own day and time, in large part because they thought that the beauty and sophistication of the language also helped it convey beautiful and sophisticated ideas.

2) I teach at a small college in upstate New York where we had until recently a native Korean professor who taught Asian history. He had a strong accent but was completely understandable - to his colleagues. The students were by and large baffled. Our student population is, while competent and sometimes quite smart, relatively unsophisticated and unworldly. They just don't have much experience listening to non-native English speakers. The faculty, of course, is  drawn from all over the country and the world, and even those of us who didn't have much experience hearing non-native speakers where we grew up certainly met them in grad school and our (more elite) colleges.

I think the commentator who drew the distinction between SE Asian Chinese-speakers and China-Chinese speakers is dead on: people in SE Asia are much more practiced in trying to speak to non-native speakers, just like we faculty are more practiced in it than our students.<<

Now we know.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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