In the last two weeks, I’ve been to China for ISO meetings and to Italy to speak at the International Project Management Association (IPMA) congress. While the two countries and the USA are miles apart geographically and culturally, they share one thing in common – members of both countries had to learn English as a second language in order to converse with the global business community. As a native English speaker (i.e., English is my first language), I believe that we often take our good fortune for granted because through no design of our own, English is THE language of business. I have a high respect for the vast majority of the world who have studied (and are mastering!) English as their second, third, … or even seventh language.
As such, I feel it is an honor and a privilege when I address an international audience in MY first language, often at the same time that they listen to me in their second. Some may not agree, but I believe that it is sheer courtesy and basic responsibility as a speaker to ensure that my words are clear and understandable, and free from local idioms.
I also discovered through two different incidents in the past couple of weeks just how separated we can become even when only English is spoken. When I returned from China to the US late last week, a representative for the TSA (Transportation Safety Authority – the security people at the airport) looked at me when I was clearing US security (after rechecking my luggage to Tampa) and said one word “Consolidate”. I looked puzzled and she repeated in a monotone – “Step aside. Consolidate.” I asked what that meant and she repeated “I said, consolidate”. I exchanged puzzlement with her co-worker and said “What does she mean”, and his answer was “I have no idea.” A few moments later, she finally pointed to a sign that said two bags were allowed through security and I realized that my duty free bag had to fit into either my purse or my briefcase. I can’t imagine how much longer it might have taken a non-native speaker to understand what she was saying – and I can only wonder – does TSA have their own dialect of English to confuse and confound even those of us who learned English as our first language?
The second situation happened in Rome at the IPMA congress hall as I was walking into the conference center with my name badge in my hand. I was stopped by the congress security and told firmly to “address my badge”. I asked for clarification and was given the same instruction to “address” my badge. Startled, I wondered how talking to my badge would make any difference to him, then I realized that perhaps he meant that I should put my badge on around my neck. When I did so, the guard nodded, and I walked away again wondering what dialect of English includes “addressing one’s badge”.
Separated by a common language is not new as we have American English, Australian English, British English, Canadian English and many other variations. Nonetheless, we in North America enjoy the luxurious position of knowing enough of any dialect to be able to function globally in our first language!
Have a great week!
Carol Dekkers, Expert, Speaker, Author, Instructor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
——Copyright 2008 Carol Dekkers – All Rights Reserved ————————————