English for everyone



When I was working as a reporter in London, I witnessed one of those “two countries separated by a common language” moments one soggy spring morning in 2012. A Boeing executive visiting from Seattle had made time ahead of a press conference to chat with the journalists in attendance, and we were all eager to forge the sort of personal connection that can lead to future scoops. The executive gamely opened the small talk with a comment about the weather. “Oh yes,” laughed one of my colleagues. “This the wettest drought I’ve ever seen.”

He was met with a confused silence. The Boeing man had flown in on the red-eye—how was he supposed to know the residents of southeast England had been told to expect their driest summer in years? The journalist realized his mistake, but dug a deeper hole trying to explain: “The government even issued a hosepipe ban!” That’s water rationing to you and me. The still-befuddled executive cut his losses and turned his attention to someone who might make some sense.

It’s a moment I try to remember when teaching. Even my best English-as-a-foreign-language students are quickly lost when I use vocabulary they’ve never encountered, complicated sentence structures, new phrasal verbs, or culturally untranslatable metaphors (sports idioms are the worst). And unless that’s the very language we’re tackling that day, there’s no point in creating such hurdles.

But speaking simply isn’t easy, and I think there are good arguments for a wider group than just language teachers—or teachers more generally—learning how to do it. In the example above, the opportunity to create an important relationship was spoiled by the journalist’s inability to modify his language—and that was with an American interlocutor; imagine a nonnative speaker trying to get his or her head around the conversation.

Perhaps the reporter’s employer ought to have offered training in forms of English variously known as “globish,” international English, and ELF (English as a lingua franca). Maybe this is a market gap for business schools, particularly those proud of their international perspective, to fill. Other graduate students might want to brush up, too; after all, most will be building careers in an increasingly global marketplace where English as spoken by nonnatives is the common linguistic denominator. (Maybe this is just the sort of thing for which universities should be offering badges.)

I like the idea of forcing movers and shakers to think carefully about their language, but then, speaking simple English is a luxury for me. My gut reaction to a simplified foreign tongue suggests that the people most resistant to any sort of dumbed-down English will be the nonnative speakers for whom it might be most useful. Here in Germany, you see, a number of municipalities and organizations have embraced a sort of German-lite on their websites and in their brochures. Here’s how Die Zeit recently described one group that facilitates this effort:

Ein Zentrum fur Leichte Sprache befindet sich in Bremen. Unter dem Dach der Lebenshilfe Bremen arbeitet das Büro für Leichte Sprache, das 2004 das erste derartige Büro in Deutschland war.

Here’s how the group puts it:

In Bremen gibt es ein Büro für Leichte Sprache.
Das Büro ist von der Lebenshilfe Bremen.
Das Büro gibt es seit dem Jahr 2004.
Es war das erste Büro für Leichte Sprache in Deutschland

Both explain that the city of Bremen’s “Office for Easy Language” (loosely, Office for Language Lite), which is part of the department for mental disability, was founded in 2004 and was Germany’s first such center. But the German-lite version has done away with reflexive and genitive forms, meaning that if an English speaker knows Büro means “office,”gibt es means “there is,” seit means “since,” and erste means “first,” there’s a good chance he or she will understand what’s being said.

My German is far from perfect, and while I understood Die Zeit’s text well enough, I can’t deny the German-lite version was infinitely less trying. I’d quite like a German-lite version of the 12 pages of instructions I was sent last week for uploading this semester’s grades onto my university’s computer system.

On the other hand, while German reflexive verbs trip me up, I love the genitive and still get a thrill spotting it, understanding it, and using it (here, I’m in a shrinking group, but that’s another blog post). Nor can I ignore that I’m gravitating to a version of the language at least originally designed for people with learning difficulties—not something I struggle with in my native tongue. Mastering texts in German-lite would not give me the pleasure that mastering texts in high German does.

But for “English-lite,” that’s not the point: If non-Germans around the world were using German-lite to communicate with one another, I might well embrace it more wholeheartedly. Sure, I’d be closed off to the full, rich experience of one culture–but I’d be gaining access to so much more.