When people ask me if Italian people can speak English, I genuinely don’t know what to reply. The reason is that, implied in this simple question, there is a double assumption: the first is the level of the language itself, but the second is the ability to actually use English as the global language, the key to communicate with everyone everywhere in the world. So, it’s not just about the actual proficiency of Italian learners (or Japanese, or French for that matter) but whether they are able to communicate with people who can’t speak their language. And this second covert meaning is what I’m going to focus on.
Truth is that here in Italy, speaking halfway an invented and italianized English and the Italian gestures language, many people manage to communicate without mastering English. I’ve seen elderly people in Naples making themselves perfectly understandable to an American or Chinese tourist just using their hands. Perhaps, even in this supposedly globalized world, not having a good command of English doesn’t necessarily mean that communication is hard or even impossible.
English is the key to communication, but not all the English native speakers are successful communicators: how’s that?
What if we reverse the question: are English native speakers always comprehensible everywhere with everyone? Not really. According to a recent article published on the BBC website, Native English speakers are the world’s worst communicators. It’s not you, it’s me, sort of. It seems that, when it comes to deliver a message in English, people who speak it as a second language do it better. Paradoxically, in a situation where English is used as the lingua franca, Anglophones are both the ones hard to follow and the ones having difficulty understanding.
When English is not their mother tongue, people tend to do three things: they use it more carefully, they limit their vocabulary, and they make their expressions simpler. The crux of the matter is that English native speakers should adjust and accomodate their speaking to the levels of fluency of the people they’re talking to. Unfortunately, many Anglophones are monolingual. This means that, not having learnt another language, their ears are not quickly receptive to language variations.
What does actually happen when your English pronounciation is TOO GOOD:
You might have experienced the same if you’re not a English native speaker but are highly fluent. Travelling around the world I’ve had the clear feeling that being able to speak a good English didn’t necessarily mean that the conversation was going to be smooth and crystal-clear. Why? Because when it came to a conversation with non Anglophones, I had to switch to a more pronounced Italian accent and simplify my vocabulary more often than what I expected. It’s not only about different proficiency levels. It’s just that Standard English might not be the real language spoken around the world.
The reasons why English is the global language have nothing to do with its apparent simplicity. Indeed, they are historical and connected to the British colonial expansion, as well as to the rise of the US as a superpower after WWII. But languages constantly change. As there are American and British varieties, so there are many “Englishes” spoken all over the world.
English varieties are interesting because, given its very status as a global language, English can be (and actually is) appropriated by virtually everyone. As this article from the the blog the Oxford dictionaries blog shows, speakers of World English are changing the language in many creative ways. Ironically, the more “English” is used as a global language, the more it gets diversified and localized, and the less is “English”. In a way, the earlier “it’s not you, it’s me” becomes more like “it’s both of us“: it might be the case that Anglophone don’t adjust and are less receptive, but we must also admit that non-native speakers do “internalize” English and can apply their mother tongue structures and meanings to it.
When the English communication fails:
That being said, what about those situations where every possible kind of English ends up by being just utterly useless? What happens when communication breaks down? Personally, when it happened to me, I realized that my Italian heritage helped me a lot.
As everyone in the world knows, Italians speak a lot and are very loud. Moreover, we tend to use our whole body (especially hands) when speaking so that we can actually have some brief conversation without talking. Although this “phenomenon” (which is more common in the south of Italy), is obviously not as global and widespread as English, it’s still a powerful tool for people who have it. Like monolingual Anglophones tend to adjust less than a bi-or trilingual Anglophone, so being raised with these double communication skill can help a lot.
Even though body language and gestures are not the same all over the world, it seems to me that, when trying to empathize with someone, they are far more reliable than English and its varieties. It’s not only related to Italian gestures. When travelling and visiting new places it’s very useful to know how locals communicate through their specific body language.
A more accurate definition of communication skills
So going back to my initial question, I think we should differentiate between language proficiency and communication skills. We can perfectly master a language and being unable to make ourselves clear whereas a low (or very low) level of proficiency doesn’t hinder our ability to communicate. In other words, English as we know it may not be the sole guarantor of cross-cultural communication.
English might still be the officially recognized global language but when it comes to connect with people and create human bonds, being creative, receptive, flexible and even “ready to look ridicoulous” are far more relevant skills.
Have you ever experienced something like this?