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Attitudes to NS/NNS English in general
Jenkins says that most NNS speak English with a ‘foreign’ accent, which causes different attitudes in speakers and listeners. This can have profound social consequences, she says (2007).
Certain phonetic details in NNS English seemed to evoke negative attitudes towards the speaker’s accent, even if the production of those sounds did not impede intelligibility. This finding is interesting if we think of the basic idea of LFC (Lingua Franca Competence) that stresses the intelligibility factor and ignores other kinds of effects on the listener. The link between listeners’ reactions and certain phonetic productions would be interesting to study.
Intelligibility is extremely important to the interviewees, but it is not the whole picture. One of the respondents described the two-way nature of interaction:
…It is true that just anything can have a harmful effect on intelligibility: the kind of pronunciation that is hard to understand…But it does not mean it is bad language, it is just that I don’t understand it.
This seems an insightful statement as different people find different accents hard to understand. It is usually easier to understand those one is used to listening to. This applies to grammar mistakes as well, as one of the interviewees mentioned the strange grammar errors of the Chinese. Even a single, strangely pronounced sound can really affect the intelligibility of one’s speech:
…I always thought it is only a joke that the Chinese lack…or find it difficult to pronounce certain sounds, but it was this one time when I realized why I find it so hard to understand that guy…it was because he simply did not produce a certain sound and that was why I had all those difficulties with his speech. And another thing is that their grammar is not so good either, the mistakes they make are different from what we are used to at home.
One respondent explained that one has to orientate differently for an exchange with, say, a Chinese; it is like a different mode you take and this really helps the comprehension. Eastern accents were described as ‘peculiar’ or ‘challenging’. There were also some interesting comments on usages that, obviously, can irritate even another NNS listener. One concerned the use of whatever. The interviewee felt a colingual NNSE used it wrongly, somehow. It seems that the NNS in this case made an attempt to sound idiomatic, but did not quite succeed.
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…like many of the engineers in Company A do, they list things and then add whatever! That is something that hurts my ear and I say: Do not do that. I mean that implies that you are not at all interested in what you say…and what might the other one think…
It is, in fact, claimed that we judge NNSs more harshly than native speakers in this sense. This might also be one of the reasons why NNSs, Finns included, are shy to use idiomatic expressions: they feel they must be perfect before even attempting it. This is unfortunate as practice is essential in developing one’s competence.
In many respects, NSs still enjoy a high esteem in the eyes of the interviewees (i.e. NSE has a high status dimension). For example, they are considered the only ones making linguistic innovations. In a way, according to the respondents, the NSs own the English language: they are the ones who can be creative with it. When asked what they do to improve their English, British and American films and TV-series and ‘a variety of their accents’, were mentioned but no NNS accents. On the other hand, those are not so easily available either.
It is very rarely we get any linguistic innovations from anyone else but the native speakers of English!
This was a reply to my inquiry about how courageous he is in using new expressions in Englishs. Whether the English of the ethnic Anglo speaker is the linguistic reference point to the interviewees was an interesting topic. The subjects had a twofold attitude to this.
Interviewer: So, you are not satisfied until…what?
Well, it would be…I always think that for as long as I don’t speak like the locals…
Interviewer: Whom do you mean by locals?
Well, I mean British English, primarily, because it has been taught to us.
This person can be said to have a high solidarity dimension with the NS accent, she seems to identify with it strongly.
What is the reaction if a person has a heavy accent, makes plenty of grammar mistakes and/or has no intonation? Some interviewees said they tend to lose interest in what the interlocutor is saying. Listening gets too tiring.
This may affect how much work gets done and can sometimes lead to misunderstandings (even though this seems to be rare). This is what Vollstedt (2002) referred to.
Two interviewees admitted to have been forced to send e-mail later on and ask what was actually said. This, however, does not seem to be a daily problem; asking questions and asking for rephrasing on the spot are widely used strategies among the participants in the study. Unfortunately this does not always lead to clearer formulations and in certain situations it feels improper to even ask. One of the subjects gave an example of this.
A native speaker of English had, in the middle of a work-related presentation, started to tell about the death that had occurred just before she left her country. The Finnish audience seemed to be listening and nodding, my interviewee among them, but as they gathered together at lunch they found no-one really knew who had died! More significantly, no-one asked either. Another respondent explains her strategies:
I think it is only stupid to keep nodding and let the others believe you understand!
Telephone conferences seem to be more problematic from the point of view of NNS language than face-to-face contacts. This is natural as gestures and facial expressions of the group members help to interpret talk.
Surprisingly, all of the interviewees commented on the Finnish “engineer English”, or “tankero-English”, varieties of NNS English among others. They explained it by a tendency to focus on function more than trying to produce any standard forms of English or proper pronunciation. Is this kind of English successful? One of them described the situation like this:
Let’s say we have this really dull RFD engineer who has no intonation or nothing. Like when he just talks monotonously – I must say I lose my interest. It [pronunciation and intonation] is of importance, I think.
In other words, listeners get the meaning of what is said, but the speaker loses their interest. That might be meaningful in business negotiations, for example. However, it is often too easy to resort to ‘tankero-English’, they say, because of a sort of group pressure. This applies especially to situations where there are no native speakers around. When asked whether their own language changes in anyway depending on who is listening, NSs or NNSs, I got the following answer that implies that despite the problems with NNS Englishes, interaction with NNSs are still ‘tolerated’ better than interaction with NSs. This might be a sign of inferiority feelings.
Yes, I think so [that she speaks English in the same way with everyone] but the only thing is…that it is probably easiest to speak with Finns, the Swedes come next and then Indians and the rest, and then the native speakers of English.
Near-native skills in English is claimed to be what most EFL learners hope for. This is not necessarily the whole truth, in the light of my study. The near-NS accent of a Finnish NNSE was not altogether unproblematic, according to the respondents. They seemed to think one must have a certain background ‘to be entitled’ to have an NS accent. They were also aware of the fact that it is not an easy task to accomplish. As argued before, it really seems that acquiring native-like nuances, really can be counter-productive for an NNSE. (cf. Seidlhofer 2005)
It takes a great deal of dedication [to achieve NS level]
I am in a situation where I do not want to start imitating or pursue any kind of native pronunciation, like those of the UK or US. Of course I do something like that, I try to speak fluently, but to start speaking like those from the UK, that would be unnatural to me. It may be that I’m at a level when it still feels like that. Or if I went to live there for a while – then it could feel more natural, but if I now started to talk like that – that would not be natural to me.
Strictly speaking, it depends on whether one has lived in that country and been there
…I have experience of both cases. A good friend of mine has lived in the UK for a long time and it was totally ok for her to speak like that but then again, I know people who have never lived there and still try to talk like them…that sounds like parroting to me…
Most respondents in this study said one of the advantages of Finnish English, Finglish, is that it is so easy to understand – by Finns, at least. But it is also a laughing matter – that we all sound the same.
The respondents also told the working language easily switches over to Finnish when the last representative of other nationalities leaves the meeting. Surprisingly, this often seemed to affect the nature of the discussion as well and this, I think, is an interesting finding.
Like if the last ones that speak English leave and we Finns go on, what happens is that the nature of the conversation changes a little…It becomes… well kind of…of course it gets more relaxed as everyone is on home ground. And I don’t know whether it affects the results very much or whether the results will be better, but at least a few barriers disappear. Deficiencies in the ability to express yourself can be problematic.
However, one interviewee felt it is easier to speak English at work, even with Finns sometimes, as the terminology used is in English, anyway.
It is not the morphosyntactic errors that in general provoke a strong reaction. It is the heavily-accented speech that sometimes hurts the respondents’ ears. This was also one of the findings in Björkman’s (2009) study in Swedish context. However, there was one grammatical feature that disturbed most of the interviewees in my study, i.e. the missing of the present tense third person –s. This is interesting as ELF research mentions it as one of the features that does not impede intelligibility and would be ‘acceptable’ in ELF usage for that reason.
The language learning background of the participants in my study might explain their reaction: the third person –s is strongly emphasized in the English classrooms. In the interviewees’ eyes, not being able to produce the correct form here seems to be a failure of some kind.
This is exactly what I usually correct in my husband’s English, as he might say “she send me an email”. And I go: “She sends you an email! “ So I always correct it as it bothers me so much.
I have been told to use the third person –s and even if I do not always remember to use it, I always notice when it is missing in someone else’s speech. It really hurts my ear to hear it.
Of course I comprehend it, but my ear tells me it must be there.
Building on previous research on ELF, this study seeks to understand how the actual ELF users experience English at the workplace, in relation to their own and others’ skills. My main interest is their English speaker identity and their developing conceptions as English speakers as well as their attitudes towards ELF in corporate setting in general and as a potential learning goal. To study this, and because ELF is still a quite controversial subject, I also need to touch on concepts like native speakerism, intercultural communication, and learner/user identities, to name a few. I also intend to discuss what the implications of ELF are on language teaching and learning. Moreover, I wish to be able to apply the results in corporate language training and raise general awareness about ELF in real life.
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