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.