As English increasingly becomes the language of business, native speakers feel, quite understandably, that they are at an advantage. But discussion often goes more smoothly when the native speakers leave the room – proceedings are not muddied by idioms and intuitive, unthinking use of slang. Conversation among non-native speakers may be more direct and pragmatic – correct, probably, yet stripped down and functional. The people who see themselves as facilitators are, in reality, obstacles. This is increasingly evident to non-native speakers, and it is having an impact on the teaching of English as a foreign language.
Most people are impressively incompetent when it comes to talking with non-native speakers of their language. The exceptions are generally those who have learnt through experience how to talk simply – businesspeople, tour guides or travellers. But it’s a skill which could be taught – it just isn’t.
Teaching of foreign languages in Britain, for good reason, farcical: a basic knowledge of French is pretty useless, when every child in France is learning English to a far higher level. Why not let kids opt out of learning foreign languages, and instead take a course in ‘how to communicate with foreigners’? Give them prose-composition excercises with a thousand-word vocabulary. Mark them down for using slang, or irony, or meaningless pleasantries that confuse the conversation. Have comprehension exercises where children must make sense of Babelfish translations, or letters badly translated from Finnish. Get them onto skype, let them talk to the Chinese kids their age who are learning English. Teach them how to rephrase and repeat, how to pitch their language according to the audience, how to figure out when a listener hasn’t understood them. It’ll be far more use than a few words in French.