On Speaking Second Languages (or: Why All Esperantists Understand One Another)

I mentioned yesterday how much easier I found Chinese, as a language, when someone other than an actual Chinese person was speaking it. And by "actual Chinese person" I mean someone for whom Mandarin is a native language. Which led to the question: is this a general rule, that non-native speakers of a language find it easier to understand other non-natives?

Most of the answers I've received are in the "it's a general rule" category. I'll quote some of them, and then wrap up with my caveats, overview, and tips for further reading. Here goes.

A reader raised in England writes:

>>I have experiences that point both ways:

1. I speak schoolboy French, and find it easier to understand French spoken by Moroccans (as their second language), than spoken by French.(On my last trip to France I was mistaken as French exactly once - by an American who had lived there for a few years).
2. I find it very hard to understand French spoken by Chinese-origin French nationals / residents.
3. I've acted as a 'translator' between a Chinese resident speaking English (a tourguide) and a French woman who spoke and heard English well. I listened in English, and spoke in English - it worked.

My guess is there are two opposing effects:

a) simplified usage and slower: this makes it easier for two second-language speakers to communicate (e.g. smaller vocabulary, limited use of tenses)
b) sound of native language: when two second-language speakers have very different sounding native languages (English vs Mandarin), this makes it harder for them to communicate in a common second language.<<

From the classroom:

>>As a teacher of English as a second language, I can attest to the phenomenon you describe regarding non-native speakers of a language. To my surprise, low-level students sometimes seem to communicate with each other better than with me, and I would be hard-pressed to participate as meaningfully in their conversations. Of course, it helps if their languages are related -- Spanish and Portuguese speakers have similar accents and make many of the same mistakes in English -- but this also occurs among students with more disparate linguistic backgrounds (Arabic and Japanese speakers, say).

As you suggest, it's partly because of the speed at which the language is spoken and the level of the vocabulary; moreover, for low-level students of English, the grammar that a native speaker uses -- even that of a teacher trying to speak as simply as possible -- can be baffling, whereas the adulterated English of other students is more comprehensible. And in the classroom, I think it has something to do with a reliance on nonverbal communication and an appreciation for the vulnerable position that one's fellow students -- like all language learners -- are in; this is especially true when the language being studied is necessary for daily life, as is the case for my students here in the United States. Beyond that, I just attribute it to the magic of an ESL classroom.<<

From an Israeli:

>>I just wanted to confirm that for me, at least, it is typically easier to understand non-native English speakers than native English speakers, as long as:
(i) their English is reasonably good, and
(ii) their pronounciation is reasonably understandable.
The main violators of condition (ii) seem to be Chinese people and Indian people, as well as some Soviet people.

it seems easier to understand non-native speakers since they just speak clearer English: less slurring, clearer pronunciation. It's also helpful that non-native English speakers usually pronounce  the letters 't' and 'r' in a more clear way, like in latin languages, compared to the American 't's and 'r's, that are often pronounced similarly to 'd' and 'w', respectively. British and Irish accents are typically easier to understand than American accents (although it of course varies on a case-by-case basis); CNN-English is easiest to

For context: I am an Israeli living in Denmark (and I lived three years in China). I speak English fluently, with a strong Israeli accent (but it is not easier for me to understand people speaking in an Israeli accent than, say, people speaking in an Italian accent).

Other Israelis and various Europeans that I talked to also seem to think that it's typically easier to understand non-native speakers than native English speakers (conditioned on (i) and (ii) above).<<

Several more after the jump.

In South America:

>>I was an English speaking expatriate in Brazil.  It was always easier for me to communicate in Portuguese with other expatriates.  The only way I could communicate with one local (with whom I had to conduct regular business) was to speak to him in Portuguese and he would answer me in English.  I could understand his English and he could understand my Portuguese, but not visa versa.<<

An American in China:

>>I did the Peace Corps in Sichuan, then went to school in Nanjing, and then lived in Bangkok for just under two years. In Bangkok, (in my experience) it was the very old and the relatively young Chinese who most often could speak Mandarin.
The most interesting thing I found: That it's WAY easier to talk to non-native Chinese speakers because (even when they're ethnically Chinese) they have bad tones and use the wrong words, too!
In SE Asia I thought something else might be going on: It's such a hodgepodge of different people, and always has been, that I think culturally people more naturally to try to make sense of what someone's saying, versus in China, where (especially in rural Sichuan in the 90s) people simply weren't used to outsiders and didn't have that talent.<<

From Japan:

>>There is a rather famous story, but I forget the source, that describes a meeting of a group of workers from various countries, all spoke English as their second language and who chatted away with each other in broken English for a few minutes before the meeting started. As soon as the Americans arrived and the meeting started, beyond the initial greeting not a word was understood. The source of this story then posited that those who speak a second language at a basic level have a vocabulary of approximately 1,000 words which they use to piece together conversation, for example, instead of the word niece, my brother`s daughter is used.

While in a waiting room of a Japanese hospital, I once had a friendly chat along with some conversation of substance on medical issues within the mode of the above. I forget from where the person came from but he did not speak English, our common language was Japanese. In the middle of the conversation a Japanese woman who was kind-of eavesdropping was just gobsmacked that two foreigners would be speaking to each other in her language and a friendly but only partial understood conversation then ensued between the three of us.<<

On avoiding metaphors etc:

>>I would urge you to reexamine your hypothesis about non-native speakers. My fiance (who is Korean) and myself met in Beijing several years ago while doing and advanced language program there. Although she speaks English fluently (my Korean... not so much), in many ways we find it easier to speak to each other in Mandarin.

Basically, I look at it it this way: we both have sufficiently large vocabularies to communicate all of our thoughts, but we largely lack the cultural and idiomatic context of Mandarin. So instead of using metaphors, chengyu, historical references, and all the other rich aspects of language that a native speaker takes for granted, we simply say what we mean.

When I speak English to non-native speakers, I find that I need to circumscribe my vocabulary and idioms to really communicate clearly - and I still fall short in editing out these pervasive influences can be. I've spent enough time living abroad to be decent at speaking bad/basic/pure English. The average native speaker with no experience communicating to foreigners usually substitutes clarity and simplicity for speaking loud and making lots of hand gestures.<<

In an ESL classroom:

>>A few years ago when I worked at a refugee resettlement agency (stateside), I noticed that our ESL students could communicate better with one another in English than they could with me, and could communicate better with me than they could with the business owners and hiring managers I brought them to. This was frustrating enough to me at the time, as I needed to accurately assess their skills and get them working asap, that it warranted deep thought. My best explanation:

1) People communicate better with people they're comfortable with. A Bhutanese refugee and Iraqi refugee in the same ESL class are equals; I am important as an indirect source of jobs (i.e. $) but also have a familiar, ongoing relationship with them; while a hiring manager is an unknown person who holds the refugee's financial future in her hands. There's some element of nerves.

2) Low-level speakers use a similar, restricted vocabulary. I remember drawing blank stares from people when I asked about their "past experiences" or "employment history," but "job" was one of the words every refugee knew, and was learned quickly.

Just a case where shared situation and shared experience can make for easier communication between non-native speakers.<<

Further reading: posts on LostLaowai and Confused Laowai sites. (Laowai = foreigner in Chinese.)

Concluding thoughts:
 - It makes sense, for the reasons laid out here, that second-language learners would have an easier time talking with each other than with native speakers, because the learners are working from a limited vocabulary, are taking pains to be clear, and are not being show-offy or allusive. (Why do Esperantists understand one another? Because almost everyone is a non-native speaker. I'll explain the "almost" some other time.)

- I still am not 100% sure in my own case, about the question I originally raised. I have by now a lot of experience speaking English with non-native speakers. I think I know how to do it in a very clear, direct, non-allusive way. I once gave a lecture at a remote, provincial Chinese university. For the first ten minutes or so, an interpreter chimed in. After that he didn't bother; the students could follow well enough with my very plain and straightforward English. So I still wonder whether a native speaker accustomed to speaking with non-natives could do a better job of mediating among, say, Korean, Turkish, and Haitian speakers of his language than they could do directly with one another. Further research is called for.

Meanwhile thanks to all who wrote in.

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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.

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