People often complain about Hong Kong's deteriorating standards of English. If you are a Hong Kong user of English, you may worry about your own ability to communicate clearly and effectively in English. Perhaps you suspect that your English communication skills are way below those of most native English speakers.
However, a new study has some good news for Hong Kong English users -- it turns out most of you may actually be better than most native English speakers in communicating clearly and effectively! The details are in a fascinating article recently posted on the BBC's website, 'Native English speakers are the world's worst communicators'. The full article can be found here:
How can this be? Much of it comes down to the different ways in which native and non-native English speakers actually use English.
The article points out that second-language English users tend to use English primarily for basic communication purposes -- i.e. getting important information across to recipients. This means that they "speak more purposefully and carefully" than native speakers, with a focus on clarity and avoiding ambiguity or doubt. They also "use more limited vocabulary and simpler expressions, without flowery language or slang. Because of that, they understand one another at face value".
By contrast, native English speakers "often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture". In foreign environments like Hong Kong, this can be a way of setting themselves apart from the locals and showing their "superiority" in English. But it also can result in very ineffective communication, because many of their local colleagues are unable to understand what they are saying. The native English speakers assert that the English language belongs to them (by using it in complex, allusive, playful and in-group ways), but at the same time they fail to communicate effectively. As a result, many Hong Kong speakers of English actually find it easier to understand Europeans speaking English than British or Americans, because the Europeans are also using English as a foreign or second language primarily for communication purposes.
(Of course, Hong Kong speakers are just as good as native English speakers at using slang, jokes and cultural references in their speech -- but they do all this in Cantonese! They reserve English for a much narrower range of functional uses -- and by and large, they perform these uses quite efficiently.)
Another advantage that Hong Kong English users have over native English speakers is that they are multi-lingual. By contrast, a very large proportion of native English speakers only speak one language -- English. Generally, people who have learned more than one language quickly come to be aware of the difficulties of communicating across languages, and are alert to the kinds of problems and challenges that arise when non-native speakers are communicating. According to the BBC article, “People who’ve learned other languages are good at [dealing with other speakers' needs], but native speakers of English generally are monolingual and not very good at tuning in to language variation.”
In summary, just because you don't follow what native English speakers say, don't get their allusions, don't pick up the jokes, don't understand their slang, or find they speak too fast -- none of this necessarily means that your English is poor. Good communication is about first recognising who your audience is and what they need to know, and then getting that information across to them as efficiently as possible. You don't need to be a native speaker to do that well in English. And, as we've seen, it's very easy to do that badly when you are a native English speaker.
About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.