One of the most common misconceptions among non-linguists is the idea that English is somehow “easier” than other languages such as Russian or Chinese or even German. Fortunately or unfortunately, that is simply not true from a linguist’s perspective.
As Heinrich Heim correctly pointed out “English is much easier to learn poorly and to communicate in poorly than any other language”. Is that good or bad news? From an economic perspective certainly bad news. Prima facie the idea of a Chinese business person speaking bad English to a Spanish business per-son speaking bad English may seem to be the present reality of globalization. But that is surely shortsighted. I am convinced that one of the most serious costs in international business is the price of poor communication.
One of the problems is certainly the fact that most people are not really all that good at communicating in any language. Here is where the myth of the “native speaker” enters the scene. Certainly native speakers have certain advantages and head starts as far as mastery of their mother tongue is concerned, but that does not mean they are really able to communicate well, either in speaking or in writing. Looking at some of the re-write requests from academic journals one gets the feeling that the standard sentence requesting the German non-native writer to have his paper “checked, corrected and improved” by a native speaker are simply over the top. Language is not only a communication instrument, it is also an instrument of power.
Indeed, the world’s superpowers since the 18th century (Great Britain and the USA) both spoke English. Unfortunately, superpowers have the luxury of not really having to critically reflect much about any-thing. Take the language: On the one hand Americans are certainly extremely tolerant when they hear non-natives speaking English. Regardless what you garble it is all “great”. That’s the good news. Now the bad news: Americans don’t really take into consideration what the garble means really. They tend to interpret the message as if it were being spoken by a native speaker, with all the complex nuances, which language entails. So the non-native is interpreted as being more “aggressive” or less “polite” than he or she intended.
Take the following test to see what I mean:
1) Which sentence is more aggressive and why?
a) Have you done it?
b) Did you do it?
2) What’s the difference between the following spoken sentences?
a) I’ll do it.
b) I will do it.
3) Which sentence is better?
a) He is studying in Paderborn.
b) He studies in Paderborn.
4) Which sentence sounds better in a presentation and why?
a) First, I will provide you with an overview.
b) I’ll begin by providing you with an overview.
5) Which sentence conveys a higher degree of certainty?
a) We’re going to leave at 10.
b) We leave at 10.
1. b. The simple past expresses the speaker’s assumption that you should be done or their anger that he knows you have not done it. This is one of the sources of the myth that German business people are “aggressive”.
2. Sentence b is much stronger. In spoken English, short forms are the normal forms. We use a long form to emphasize, which could be because I am really angry or I be-lieve that the listener does not really believe me.
3. It doesn’t matter. Students study for 6 or 7 semesters, which could be their routine (b) or just what they are doing at present (a).
4. Sentence b. The function of progressive forms (ing) is to stretch and create space. In this case it makes the audience feel more in-cluded.
5. Sentence b. It is like a fact and managers use simple present when they want no discussion or any doubt. The going-to future is one of the least understood tenses of Eng-lish. Sentence a means “we are going to try and leave at 10”.