Issue 69:2016 09 01: Keeping it Clear (Richard Pooley)

01 September 2016

Keeping It Clear

Why the British need to learn how to speak English… to foreigners (part 1)

by Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag
photo Robin Boag

It must be frustrating sometimes being a French foreign correspondent.  Even though French is spoken by 274 million people around the world, half of them live in Africa and a quarter in France itself. So, unless Marie-Claire or Jean-Pierre are reporting from, say, Senegal, the Ivory Coast or the Republic of the Congo, it is likely that any interview they conduct in a foreign country will have to be done in a language other than French, often in English.  No doubt they can speak the local language well, but if they are working for a French TV or radio station, those interviews will need to be translated into French before they are broadcast to viewers and listeners in France. A lot of information can be lost in those translations, especially on radio – the intended irony, the subtle criticism, or the unspoken fear.  It must be even more frustrating to be a French TV or radio presenter of a current affairs programme who is required to interview people abroad.  Finding someone who has something to say relevant to the news item and who can also speak French is rarely possible.

Living in France, I listened last week to news reports on the Italian earthquake on RMC, a popular French radio station, and via the BBC. The only Italian who spoke French to the RMC reporter was someone living in Rome whose family came from the area around Amatrice.  Everyone else spoke either Italian or, mon dieu, English.  So, you might think that presenters and reporters working for the BBC and other media organisations in English-speaking countries have it easy.  After all 1.5 billion people are said to be able to speak English.  But there is a problem: few native English speakers know how to speak English to non-native English speakers.  And those few do not, in my experience, include many journalists.

On Radio 4’s Today programme last Friday Mishal Husain interviewed two Italians about the earthquake.  She and they spoke in English.  The first Italian was from Save the Children.  He was in Amatrice to set up a playground for children who had survived the earthquake but whose parents had died, were missing or were in hospital.  Husain’s first question was a good one.  It was short and specific and had elicited this information.  It was also clear that the Italian was a confident speaker of English.  But here is her second question: “And do you try and talk to them about the earthquake or do you wait until they bring it up themselves and ask questions?”  He replied: “Yeah for the moment we are waiting to open our activities. We will do that in one hour, a couple of hours.  So, at the moment we are not talking to the children but we are meeting a lot of children…”  He continued for another 30 seconds or so, still without answering her question.  Why not?  First, her question was far too long – 24 words.  Even the most confident non-native English speaker would still be processing the first part of her question as she was speaking the second part.  I am sure the Italian only actually absorbed “And do you try and talk to them about the earthquake”.  The words after “or” were lost.  Hence, his only reference to her question is “we are not talking to the children.”   What then should she have done to make sure he listened and understood the whole question?  Simple: pause before “or” long enough for him to have finished processing the first part and be ready to listen to the second.  She would have turned one 24-word question into what sounded like two questions – an 11-word one and a 13-word one.  Even then our Italian might have had a problem with one of the six verbs Husain used in her question (native English speakers love using verbs where many non-native speakers would use nouns in their own tongue).

Verbs with a preposition or adverb, bring up in this case, are a nightmare for most non-native English speakers.  So many of them have multiple meanings. Try explaining: I get on with John. So, I’ll get on to him and get him to get on with it. Mind you, he is getting on. Or my favourite: They cut the tree down and then cut it up.  The trouble is we Brits love using these phrasal verbs, as grammarians call them.  What could Husain have used instead of bring up?  How about repeating talk about?  Repetition of words which only have one meaning is another tip for those wishing to be fully understood by non-native speakers.

Husain’s second interviewee was a rather pompous and very garrulous Italian professor of architecture. The interview did not start well:

Husain: “When you are faced with an earthquake zone…”

Professor: “Excuse me?”

Husain: “When you are faced with an earthquake zone, as you were, how do you decide where to begin?”

Can you face an earthquake zone? In her introduction to this interview she posed two simple questions about the buildings hit by the earthquake: “How were they built? How will they be rebuilt?”  If she had asked the professor those questions, I am sure we would have had clearer, more interesting answers.  He told us that the priority in rebuilding would be “hospitals…and all the buildings related to the emergency”.  Good.  But he then rattled on about the response to the earthquake that had hit nearby L’Aquila. Not the one in 2009 but one of the three that occurred in the 18th century (there have been ten since 1315).  It was quite clear to this listener that he wanted to keep control of the interview and hoped to stop Husain asking him another befuddling question.  She did manage two more questions. Unfortunately, his response to the third one had to be cut short.  She had run out of time.  Yet he had just started to tell us how corruption had ensured that buildings were, and would continue to be, unable to withstand major earthquakes.  Here, at last, was the newsworthy opinion she was presumably seeking.

Husain has many admirers.  My wife is one.  To the native English speaker Husain speaks beautifully.  Nor is she the worst at interviewing non-native English speakers.  I could have given you far more egregious examples from other BBC news programmes and other media companies, British and non-British.  And there are one or two who are very good at it.  If you listened to the BBC’s World at One on Tuesday this week, you would have heard an exemplary interview by Martha Kearney of an Italian from Médecins Sans Frontières.


The problem is not just confined to the media. Too many British and American business people cause costly problems for themselves and their companies because they are unable to speak English in a way which can be understood by foreign colleagues, suppliers and clients.  I will return to this in a future article but will leave you with three puzzles.  First, why did the word formation cause a BBC reporter and a French diplomat to talk at cross-purposes during a radio interview?  Secondly, why has the London branch of a Japanese bank been training its British staff to speak English over the past five years?  Thirdly, why should my esteemed fellow columnist Chin-Chin not use his sobriquet when toasting Hashimoto-san and Kogure-san (as I once did) at a dinner in Tokyo?


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