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Native speakers are hard to understand in a lingua franca situation (bbc.com)
174 points by sampo on May 20, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 254 comments

All: please let's not react to the title, and certainly not just with an indignant reflex [1]. There's more interesting material here.

We've edited the title now to be more neutral and accurate, using representative language from the article.

[1] https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=true&sor...

There is another aspect beyond raw vocabulary and grammar, and that's unspoken cultural assumptions :not abbreviations and slang, but real misunderstandings caused by different understandings of what seems to be a set of perfectly obvious sentences to both sides .

A branch of my company went through a merger with another branch in a different country, and with a different language. Needless to say, it was difficult, and people didn't all take it well. The interesting part was that both sides thought the other side was being actively hostile, and were brandishing emails as 'proof'.

I was eventually asked to do something to reconcile both sides of the new merged team, since I am a native speaker of both languages and understand both cultures. I read the emails, and was flabbergasted. Side A could read email from B as hostile, but side B had genuinely sent something they thought was perfectly ok, and I could see why. The other way round was the same. To be more specific, some cultures are far more direct than others, and what seems offensive to one is perfectly acceptable to the other. The other way round would be saying something 'forcefully' but very indirectly, and the other side understanding it as 'no' when it meant 'yes'.

I ended up solving the problem by organizing a very nice lunch, where everyone realized the 'others' were actually nice and friendly human beings, and that email was not always the best way to communicate.

The related story my wife tells regarding when the Belgian company she was working for had just acquired their Dutch counterpart. The new owners sent high level executives to talk to all the new employees and reassure them of what was going to happen. The primary speaker was chosen because he was a native Flemish speaker and spoke multiple dialects as well as multiple other languages.

When they arrived and got into the meeting hall, the speaker leaned heavily on the word for “worker”. He promised that everything they would do would be in tight coordination with the Workers Council, etc…. I think he probably used it in just about every other sentence he spoke.

At the very end of his long presentation, he asked if anyone present had any questions. There was just one — an older man in the back held up his hand and said:

“You do realize that the Flemish word for ‘worker’ is also the Dutch word for ‘slave’, right?”


Language is hard. It’s easy to misinterpret, even if you think you’re an expert, and even if you’re communicating in person.

But e-mail eliminates all the unspoken communication like body language and actual tone of voice, which is about 90% of all normal human communication.

We need to keep these things in mind, every time we communicate with someone, even if it is in person, and we think we are an expert.

As a French living in Japan one of the things I quickly learned is that if I complain about something while showing even a hint of anger or annoyingness, my interlocutor will take it personally, even if he/she is not involved about the thing as well.

Was you complaint about something related to Japan or the life there or the administration?

Japanese people very easily feel compelled to defend their group, because if not they are often treated as "anti-japanese" by the most right-wing (which are the most vocal) of their relations/neighbors. This in turn leads to a lot of self-censorship.

> Was you complaint about something related to Japan or the life there or the administration?

I think you're on the wrong track; some people just take everything personally. Compare this story from an American married to an American: ( https://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=49908 )

> Early in our marriage I’d find myself in the middle of situations like this:

>> Shamus is struggling with some ridiculous multi-stage problem with Windows 98.


>> He can’t hold it any longer. He slams his fist into the bottom-right of his keyboard and caves in the bottom of the numpad. He’s vaguely aware that he’s just injured his hand, but he can’t feel it yet because of the adrenaline rush.

>> Heather dashes into the room in a panic.

>> Heather: What’s wrong?!?!?!

>> Shamus struggles to get a grip on himself

>> Shamus: It’s… Windows. It… first it wanted the disk, and THEN it says it can’t FIND the disk even though the disk is FUCKING RIGHT THERE! I CAN SEE IT IN THE FILE EXPLORER BUT WINDOWS WON’T LET ME FUCKING ACCESS IT AND THEN–

>> Heather slams her hands over her ears and looks like she’s on the edge of tears.

>> Heather: Stop shouting at me!

> I’ve lost count of the number of times I shouted, “I’M NOT ANGRY AT YOU, I’M JUST ANGRY.”

> Once I understood some of the problem, I was able to explain it to my wife. Now she knows not to dash into the room just because I’m shouting at Uplay or whatever.

Took us years to adjust with my wife. I complain far less, I make sure to tell "I am not angry at you" even when I find it obvious. She starts complaining like a French as well <3

wow. I can't work with people who take everything personal; it stresses me out because I don't have the mental capabilities to ALWAYS explain that it's not about them (good that it worked out with your wife). No problem with the windows-guy though (we've all been there).

No it was about other persons. I remember one specific instance where a friend explained to me what a neighbor asked of us for a property we manage together and I complain that these demands are really annoying especially after we had spent some money and time satisfying other demands that I personally did not find grounded. My friend then asked "why are you so angry at me?". "I am not! I am complaining!"

Wow I had the same "backfire" experience saying that the neighbor/neighborhood ("kinjo") was forcing stupid behavior on them and that they were not compelled to obey them nor to fear them.

To me it seemed like the kinjo is too hot an issue to criticize. OR maybe, obeying to the kinjo is virtue signaling, and criticizing their decision to obey is denying their virtue.

It did not occcur to me that it could be a more deep cultural difference, let alone a linguistic one.

> To me it seemed like the kinjo is too hot an issue to criticize. OR maybe, obeying to the kinjo is virtue signaling, and criticizing their decision to obey is denying their virtue.

I think the third option is that are just as frustrated about the rules as you, but what are they going to do about them? From their perspective, it’s easier to suck it up and be free to get on with their lives as opposed to rocking the boat and attracting the ire of the neighborhood Karen, who inevitably has unlimited rage, time, and energy.

You've both just completely missed the real underlying thing going on in that situation.

To the Japanese person, the main question on their mind is is the thing the village council is telling them to do in the best interests of the community and their neighbors.

To question of if the village has the legal authority to make them do something, and implying that if they don't then the Japanese person has no more problems, misses the fact their their real struggle is deciding how to be a good neighbor and citizen. Obeying the village government isn't the virtue they're "signaling", caring about being a good neighbor or member of society is the virtue they actually have and maybe the cost of being one is really the issue, or lamenting over if it's necessary to do what was asked to be a good citizen.

> To the Japanese person, the main question on their mind is is the thing the village council is telling them to do in the best interests of the community and their neighbors.

I don't think so. I'd say 90% of the time they don't know who set the rules or why they are that way. They just follow them to avoid attracting the attention of the local busybody, there's always one. That extends to many situations in Japanese society too, it's why you rarely see people confronting, eg troublemakers and bullies in public, or until somewhat recently, at work. They'd rather ignore them and get on with their day than become a target.

Any time I encountered a rule that seemed strange I would ask my closest Japanese friends (girlfriend, her parents, friends) and they always gave a reasonable answer that almost always was related to the rule upholding collectice civility, safety, or productivity. And they happily acknowledged the possible drawbacks and were willing to consider if the law was actually good.

Another thing they value is to not make change until one is certain it is actually an improvement, and they assume existing rules were made with the same care. The above can be very frustrating because there's some changes that are obviously for the better and some rules not made with the best intent or carefulest consideration.

But the idea that Japanese are all cowards dismisses that the demure personality comes from a collective cultural agreement that requested change must be thoroughly considered, and that it is in some way implying the previous makers of a rule were unwise or lacked consideration. So to propose a change without being what they'd consider a brute or idiot would take maybe more energy than that person is willing to give for the issue.

You're lucky to have encountered such thoughtful people. Not everyone is like that. I'm not sure what your Japanese level is, but exact examples of what I wrote are a search of "町内会ルール トラブル" etc away.

Who accused Japanese of being cowards? People here are raised to avoid conflict and let things go. It's not cowardly, it's a useful way of keeping a community together. Unfortunately, it also a tool for めんどくさい人 to get their own way.

The "good" neighbor/citizen is the one able to explain how to improve on a flawed rule.

The avoidance of conflict extends to an avoidance of even merely justifying oneself, or of any "rational" (rikei) discussion.

Almost each time I start a rational discussion with somebody in Japan, except in an engineering context, I get a very negative reaction and I'm seen as a trouble-maker.

I don't think it is very sane to have rules that virtually nobody dares to refine or fix.

Whenever I've met a French speaker in Japan (which happens surprisingly often) I have always been amazed at their ability to be just as direct in Japanese as they are in French. It turns my ears red and I'm American.

I don't think it's about their opinions, it's just a language you have to be more polite in. Doesn't feel any different from the South or UK to me.

I'd say it's more cultural than linguistic.

Pure politeness is as well present in French, but in Japan it's an aversion to openly and directly confront others.

You don't have it in Osaka as much as in Tokyo or Kyoto (that's why I'd think it's not the language), and in Tokyo people are overly stressed by their work, commuting, and overpopulation in general, so they need to compensate it by an impressive spectrum of skills for passive agessivity (which is not really better).

Disclaimer of competing interests: I'm a French guy in Japan.

Yes, it is not about politeness, it is about conflict. In France, being frank is a quality, in Japan it is a mark of immaturity. Grown-ups are supposed to communicate their opinions implicitly.

I stopped finding it "interesting and different" when I realized that it led to a LOT of miscommunications even among Japaneses and could end up ruin lives because of the unwillingness to point out even minor things.

Happy to hear this is mostly a Tokyo thing (though it does extend to my coutryside in the Chiba peninsula)

Fired Vancouver Waiter: I'm not rude, I'm just French [1]

I work in the tech industry. As a senior engineer, I've had to mediate MULTIPLE misunderstandings over the years (and also hearing random complaints) about French tech workers being perceived by native English speakers, Indians, Asians as condescending, offensive, or rude.

Having worked with them closely and spent personal time trying to understand them, I know it's not in their hearts. Humans are humans. Rude ones, polite ones, friendly ones, impersonal ones. On a culture-wide scale we all average out. But the language is a problem. I almost feel bad for them.

And so I've literally had to tell people "<so and so> isn't rude, or condescending to you. They're just French."

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43507949

Japanese feel compelled to defend their group because a lot of foreigners impose their cultural expectations on them, and misunderstand the intent behind why certain things are done the way they're done. And because they genuinely love their society/culture.

Never met a single far right Japanese nationalist living there over a year. But nearly all looked at the pros and cons of their society, and felt theirs were better than the list other countries had, for providing a life they wanted to live, and don't care about how those align with other countries interpretation of those things.

Your explanation is one I've often heard from people whose main Japanese friends are the "far left" who have spent significant time living outside of Japan by choice, hardly a group that could be said to represent the average Japanese person. Most Japanese also just find emotionally charged complaint to be disrespectful, even if it's not about Japan. There's a lot to learn about the nuances of their culture, a simple explanation is usually very incorrect, and might not even be a contributing factor.

Curious to hear where your explanation of vocal right wing neighbors comes from.

First of all, you need to understand that many Japanese people want to change their country. Yes, in Japan too, "left" and "right" are 50/50.

The recognition that a form of organization is imperfect is very different from "not loving it".

For example I want to improve the way my computer program works, that does not mean I hate it, that's pretty much the contrary.

As much as I love Japan, I want it to be better. New problems have emerged that did not exist in the past, so the mistake is to change nothing.

(I say "I", but that extends to Japanese people who share this view too.)

Most of the people who want to improve the society (they are often labelled "progressives", yes I feel I belong to this side) meet the opposition of people that want to keep it as it is ("conservatives").

The problem is when "progressives" are depicted as "anti-<name of the organization>", here as anti-Japanese, by some of the most extremist "conservatives".

You seem to make the same association, and I'd like to inform you that this is right-wing propaganda, and it is obviously an erroneous fallacy.

So, as you have yourself integrated this fallacy, it means that you have been at least in indirect contact with the right-wing ideology, even if you seem to not be aware.

This association of terms prevents any movement.

The reality is that there are no "anti-Japanese" and "pro-Japanese", only "pro-{new,futuristic,improved}-Japan" and "pro-{traditional,old,unchanged}-Japan".

And the funny part is that in "old Japan" some conservatives want to go further in the past, but then they need to take an arbitrary reference in time. They like the Meiji period, but on many aspects Japan from the Heian period was way more "progressive" than nowadays and than what they are prepared to accept.

One more element I'd like to answer to you is why you did not notice any "progressive" people around you. They are very quiet. Because of the pressure created by a part of the society, they tend to keep it to themselves. For example, I discovered only last month that a neighbor was vegan (as I am, too), and she never reveals it because it invariably attracts harsh and negative comments on her from some other Japanese people (the "vocal conservatives" which I was speaking about). I categorize veganism as a progressive characteristic, and reciprocally it is absolutely labelled as anti-Japanese by people (okay let me say they are right-wing?) on Twitter for example.

Last but not least, let me precise that when I say "improved Japan" I do not mean "westernized Japan", as you seemed to imply in your critic too. On the contrary, I think that the path to the future is not yet showcased by any existing country, it has to be crafted.

PS: Oh, and several years ago I was very "conservative" regarding Japan, I had pink glasses and was in unconditional love with every single aspect of it to the point that I was blind to the problems even when they slapped me in the face. So I understand you, I was there before.

I appreciate the time taken to give a detailed reply, especially from someone with experience living in Japan, and who had once a possibly similar view as I do currently.

That said, as much as you think I've integrated right wing fallacies (assuming the progressive Japanese you've spoken to have spent significant amounts of time living outside of society, something you equated to the right wing label of anti-Japanese) you have also integrated left wing fallacies (pro-{new,futuristic,improved}-Japan" and "pro-{traditional,old,unchanged}-Japan"/that left wing thinking is oppressed in Japan, the country with the largest communist party in the democratic world).

The main argument of people who don't agree with you is that many progressive policies aren't, in fact, creating an "improved" Japan, and are just upholding western values that don't serve them any benefit.

I'm also a vegan socialist, and have spent plenty of weekends hanging with friends who frequent Shinjuku-gyoemmae, if you know what I mean, and have been vocal about all of this to people in Japan, and experienced no push back.

Perhaps I am shielded from critique being non-Japanese myself, but to call Japan a country dominated by Conservatism feels very different from the one I experienced, and seems to me that it only appears that way to the very most demanding progressives who are just as quick to label normal Japanese people as right wing. Everyone against them seems extremist to an extremist, so I have trouble believing your view isn't also deeply oppositely biased and not a clear view of the society.

I have many things to reply to this, but I don't feel like Hacker News, and especially this sumbission, is the right place for that.

Please drop me an email if you want.

I think tribalism goes beyond language, I joined a company with two offices in different countries and while there was some rock-throwing and mistrust of each other, it all went away when we got acquired. Somehow belonging to the "old" company was a stronger bond that speaking the same language, so all this negative feelings got shifted towards the parent company

Damn monkey brains

Meeting in person and regularly is extremely underrated.

This can happen also within a single culture. When two companies do some business together but instead of meeting often and talking directly (or zoom), spend weeks to carefully craft emails and never talk face to face.

It is exploited.

There are so many evil politicians who order to murder people or made the laws which restrict human rights. But if you meet them in person, you will definitely feel they are nice person.

This is a really interesting point.

Malcolm Gladwell: "The people who got Hitler right were those who never met him, and the people who got him wrong were those who did spend time with him."

Here's a clip from an interview with Gladwell on this subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvOilwY0yOQ&t=178s

>but real misunderstandings caused by different understandings of what seems to be a set of perfectly obvious sentences to both sides.

Yes. Especially true when it happens between an American and a Brit.

Also true between Germans and Brits, when the Germans are so good with their English, the precision with their wordings which tends to trigger some Brits.

Do you have an example/anecdote for the last part? Not sure I know what you mean.

(not op) well, we Germans are very direct. So we would write something like "Can you give me the coordinates? Thanks in advance." whereas a Brit would like it if it was written as "I would very much like to get the coordinates from you. Can you direct them to me? Thank you very much. Much appreciated." (well, my impersonation of a Brit is not the best since I am too German in this respect)

I'm not convinced by that example: I am British and would use exactly the same phrasing as your first example; the "thanks in advance" takes the edge off it perfectly well. The second example is like a bad impression of a subservient butler or something !

A better example is "that's interesting" meaning "wtf is that? Take it away and burn it" I've had to start specifying "not in the British sense" when using the word.

yeah, actually it took me a while to get to that point, with the "thanks in advance" :) I think generally my argument holds true (at least a little bit, but it probably also has a lot to do with not being familiar enough with the foreign language) but as with the example in the OP what's even truer is that emails can VERY easily be misunderstood as being unfriendly no matter the language. Which is why it's very important to use more social ways of communicating, e.g. telephone once in a while (and especially with delicate matters).

"No offence intended" -> "I don't want to face any consequences for what I'm about to say". Although I had a boss who would say it all the time. It was very stressful because I was constantly trying to work out what it was he just said that might be offensive, leading me to overanalyze and wonder if he was the world's best passive aggressor.

Sure, but I wouldn't have described that as precision necessarily, so I wondered if there's a different nuance I'm missing.

there's many info graphic variations rattling around the internet: what the brits say, what they mean and what everyone else understands. As a Brit in Germany it really helped bring to the front that I was not being as clear as I could be in a country that values directness.

> I ended up solving the problem by organizing a very nice lunch, where everyone realized the 'others' were actually nice and friendly human beings, and that email was not always the best way to communicate.

Email is terribly crappy. You completely lose language nuance. I always try to give people the biggest benefit of the doubt even when I'm certain that the person on the other side of the email is a raging asshole.

I think its just "Seeing a face activates friendliness brain circuits." I really do have no other explanation how you can completely defuse situations just by having people sit down and talk at lunch, a bar, etc.

However, my problem is that I have an extremely good command of the English language. This is very useful when I talk as I can make full use of humor, simile, metaphor, florid prose, idioms, etc. to keep things interesting for people.

And I completely lose English as a second language people because they can't keep up with my language gymnastics at speed. If I have non-native listeners and I have to communicate, I have to deliver the talk once to myself, watch it, suppress all of my language weirdness, and deliver it again. It's really tough.

Of course, people who speak English as a second language love listening to me one-on-one as they learn all manner of crazy ways to say things.

Its more than a face, it's also tone of voice, posture, and so on. With it gone, people tend to assume the worst, because humans are biased to interpreting things in the negative when something is ambiguous.

Being within punching range also has a calming effect on most people.

A: "Should I launch the nukes?"

B: "Fuck no"

A: *Initiates launch*

Laugh, but talking with Japanese, something that often happens is:

A: "Shouldn't I launch the nukes?"

B: "No."

Can be understood as "yes, do it" because they are used to an opposite logic when answering negation. "Yes" means "I agree with the negation" and no the opposite.

And they seem to have a hard time accepting that the logic is different in English.

There’s the classic “you can’t add too much water to the reactor” where “can’t” can mean you are physically incapable of adding too much water, and therefore should add a lot, or “can’t” can mean you must not add to much water.

Yes, but that’s not so much a problem with the language but more an issue of sentence construction. A big part of good communication in any language is anticipating that sort of ambiguity and adding context or rephrasing to remove it if required.

‘Can’t’ is really too passive to use if it really is ‘must not’ for anything serious, so while the sentence could work either way in spoken communication (because you can convey enough context with tone of voice and emphasis to imply which sense you mean), it would still not be a great choice of words if you mean the second sense.

"Can't" isn't even the slightest bit passive. But a person who is telling others how to communicate well will always use technical terms with the wrong meaning.

In this case a negative imperative is what you should be using. Moreover, since it's a life-or-death matter, we need to carefully explain ourselves. "Do not add too much water to the reactor. If you add too much water, the reactor could explode. The reactor should never contain more than 1000 litres of water. If it is overfilled, immediately follow the steps in 3.4.1 to perform an emergency evacuation." By being careful in our follow up, we reduce the risk of any misunderstanding. We cannot prevent a person from misunderstanding, but at least they are more likely to realise they have misunderstood something and seek clarification.

"Must not" is reasonably well-understood by native speakers of English, but it is confusing to non-native speakers because even though "must"="have to", the negations have different meanings. It is no use being technically correct if the person whose responsibility it is thinks you said "you don't have to add too much water to the reactor". The prevalence of "must" also varies throughout the native-speaking world.

Especially in german where “You must not“ reads very similar to “Du musst nicht“

Which means “You don’t have to”

“Yo must” could be correctly translated to “Du musst” though...

That's an ambiguous question in native English too and could only be fully, precisely understood from context.

While I would interpret the sentence from only the context you provided in the way that you describe, I would characterize the question as unclear. A military chain of command would definitely phrase the question more like "Mr. President, can you confirm you are giving us the order to launch the nukes? Please present your confirmation code."

But I understand what you mean about negations having opposite meanings in (spoken) English (where context is clearer). I consider that kind of negation and answer to be sloppy written grammar and something to avoid in written English.

French and German, at least, have handy words (si and doch respectively) that just serve to contradict a negative question.

I think doch and ihr (plural you) really need to be in English. I sometimes use yous for ihr, but unfortunately no equivalent for doch yet.

That's because はい/いいえ doesn't mean yes/no, it means correct/incorrect. Though the yes/no response to negative questions is also different in American and British English.

Saying hai is "correct" is misleading in its own way: no English-speaking child will say "correct" to "Would you want some ice cream?", but "hai" is what a Japanese kid would say.

what do you mean by 'forcefully' but very indirectly.

Sorry I wasn't clear. They think they are making their point quite strongly with very explicit language, but are wrapping it in all kinds of polite conditionals and ifs and hidden meanings, making it, well, less explicit : they are being indirect.

Your cat is on your kitchen table, looking at the chicken. Me: Indirect : is the cat supposed to be on the table ? Direct : your cat is about to eat the chicken! get away cat!

Obviously, to one culture, the 'is the cat...' version is quite explicit and forceful. To the other, not at all.


(I didn't read the whole thing, but the first two sections or so are pretty much what I meant)

This article blames English specifically for what is ultimately a cultural difference. This goes for a native speaker in any language.

I speak passable Spanish, and have encountered the same "cultural dissonance" when dealing with a native speaker in a room full of non-native speakers. When you grow up embedded in a language and culture, you don't realize when you slip into colloquialisms and culture references that don't translate well.

That whole business deal the article opens with is a joke. It's not the native speaker's fault, nor the word's fault. It was the recipient who picked randomly when faced with an unclear choice. If you're unclear, as for clarification. I worked with an international collaboration of scientists during college and that was one of things you learned quickly. No one has the same frame of reference you do, so make sure you're all on the same page. Hell, simply rephrasing your understanding in a reply before you take action can clear this up in a single message. "So you wanted us to X? Got it!". Then the other party has the opportunity to step in and say, "No, do Y".

Yes, of course, but it's an article for English language speakers published by the BBC, so it's written in terms of English being the native language. Perhaps there's an analogous article written in some Spanish publication for Spanish speakers.

In any case, English is the most popular second-language in 55 countries, so it's not a bad guess to write this article in terms of English.

So the HN title has been changed, but the original article specifically calls out Native English speakers as "the world's worst communicators".

The author could have couched the entire article from the point of view that a native speaker is difficult for non-native speakers to understand. I was simply pointing out that the article points an accusing finger at a particular group, when the issue at hand isn't a particular language, but the situation in question.

This is definitely something that communicators and collaborators need to be aware of, but the article, at least to me, demonizes a particular group even though the issue isn't inherent to that group.

Both things can perfectly be true. I see no contradiction here.

It is just a matter of native nuances being difficult to understand for non-natives of any language...

And also the fact that English is the language most used for international meetings anywhere in the world.

this ^

I think some commenters are taking issue with this article for singling out English. Yes, the larger issue is native vs non-native speakers in any language. But this article is specifically addressed to native English speakers because English often serves as the common language in a room of mixed-language speakers.

I'm a native English speaker. I don't find the article offensive, and I appreciate it pointing out how I can be a more effective communicator.

In other languages it wouldn’t happen at the same scale due to people also speaking a second language and realise these dynamics. Do you know many native English speakers speaking a second language fluently? I have been living in the U.K. for over 10 years and can count them on a hand.

Well, the thing about English being a global lingua franca is that English speakers aren't constantly exposed to another language the way many other people are exposed to English. It isn't fair, but there we are.

That’s the problem. People think they can get away without knowing languages just because most resources have been translated. They don’t know that they are missing out on a huge portion of information they will never fully understand. The education system is lacking on promoting culture rather than eligibility to work in U.K. and this makes things much worse

> I'm a native English speaker. I don't find the article offensive, and I appreciate it pointing out how I can be a more effective communicator.

If you want people to communicate more effectively, then you state how to communicate more effectively. It is best to avoid criticism since the recipient is liable to take it poorly. Trying to be provocative will only result in the intent of the message being ignored.

Unless they’re German or Eastern European, in which case if you don’t point out exactly where they personally are wrong they might think you’re complimenting them, seeking help in figuring out who IS doing something wrong, or don’t have any actual issues, and everything is ok.

Speaking of cultural differences.

For an article about communicating clearly, it was pretty poor at communicating clearly.

FWIW, I don't take this article poorly because I don't see it as being critical of some immutable characteristic of either me or of English. It's simply pointing out a blind spot that native speakers are unlikely to realize when speaking to non-native speakers.

As to the headline, like not judging a book by its cover, I also don't judge an article by its crappy clickbait provocative headline.

The provocative title is surely one, if not the main reason, the article is here in HN, and not utterly ignored in a sea of other articles with effective and clear titles.

Clickbait exists, because we react to it.

I agree with this totally and I am a native English speaker. English often has many confusing and ambiguous terms that can only be known by having a very well developed sense of context.

Have many non-native English speaking friends, I understand their difficulty with the language. When communicating with my friends I try and choose appropriate words to avoid misunderstanding until I can grasp the level at which they understand English. It bothers me when I see other people communicate to non-english speakers and they either get irritated or they don't understand how what they said could be misunderstood. It is as if they've never evaluated the difficulty of their own language.

Then it gets even worse because in casual conversation people will throw in all kinds of slang and just totally made up words. As native English speakers you can pick them apart and get an idea of what's happening even if you don't know the specific slang. A non-native speaker has no hope at all.

With all communication it's important to know your audience and address them in a way they can understand.

One thing that I haven't seen mentioned in any language-related discussion is that understanding is often a matter of discarding possible "neighbouring" meanings. To do that, you need to have a comprehensive knowledge of the language.

In English it's particularly bad because of the proximity between some vowels. In many cases a monosyllabic word is one of six or seven almost identical. And that's for basic vocabulary. Think bird, bear, beard, bore, bar, boar, beer, birth, born, burn, bier... when someone is whispering the words or talking over a noisy medium.

I’ve experienced this problem for native and non-native speakers alike, where perfectly capable English speakers almost freeze up when they mishear a word, rather than try to help the conversation along. I’d usually ask the other party to spell it out, whereas some simply drop the conversation dead and awkward silence ensues.

> perfectly capable English speakers almost freeze up when they mishear a word, rather than try to help the conversation along.

As a person who speaks a second language I learned as an adult, I find this situation incredibly difficult to negotiate.

In my first language, I can get through almost any such situation by using humour. In my second language, at best, I can manage 'just one more time?' with a frowny face.

I often think - why wasn't I taught this skill in any language school I attended?

Here is another BBC article, from which I learned that this international insurance company has organized training for native speakers to speak in a more understandable manner:

> After taking an in-company e-learning course to help native English speakers communicate better with non-native speakers, Barron slowed down his pace of speaking and edited his “American speak” to avoid jargon and idioms that don’t translate globally.


Thanks for linking to this article. Can anyone recommend a place to get this kind of training for those of us who don't work at a company that offers it? I'm a monoglot American living in a midwestern city where I'm mostly surrounded by other such Americans, but I want to raise my awareness of how I might be a bad communicator.

In the UK, there is a campaigning organisation called the 'Plain English Campaign' which promotes clear, easy-to-understand written English suitable for any industry or profession.

Although, the organisation is based in the UK, their advice is relevant for anyone who writes or reads English.

Here is their clear, simple and short guide on How to write in plain English [PDF]:


Even English speakers sometimes miss this context. I played FFXI, and it had an auto-translate feature (hit tab to enclose certain words, to translate to the reader's language). Very useful with some care taken to understand what you're writing.

A lot of people didn't put enough thought into how they used it though, and tripped over many English homonyms/colloquialisms. For example putting {cap} as a synonym for 'limit', when it meant 'hat'. So when they wanted help with the level 50 limit quest, Japanese players must have been confused why all the Americans are talking about level 50 hat quests.

Have you ever been to France and tried speaking French after a few years of study? Have you ever had to deal with someone there who speaks far better English than you, but refuses to because of snobbery?

This article is trash

Have you ever spoken to a French person while imitating their accent and found that they understand you much better?

Yes, I thought I was being funny with my exaggerated french accent. They just found it clearer. Unfortunately this makes them think I have better french than I actually do and they speak to fast.

I found in Paris, the easiest way to communicate was to speak English with an exaggerated French accent, and throw in the few words of French I know. In the other parts of France I've been to, English was effectively useless; I made do with broken German. This wasn't for conversation, but conveying information, buying stuff etc.

Have you ever spoken to a Glaswegian while imitating their accent and found that they understand you better?

I was really worried that people would think I was making fun of them, but, in reality, they just thought that my horrible American accent had gotten a little bit better. :)

I even have to do that with Australians as a Kiwi - asking for a "pen" sounds to them like I want a "pin", so I have to stretch my vowels and ask for a "peeen" which sounds to me like I'm taking the piss, but they don't seem to take offense, and then hand me a pen.

As an aussie, I guess I might notice you sound a bit odd but appreciate that you are making an extra effort over and above the usual. Not going to complain about that!

Also, given how poorly aussie accent is portrayed in so many TV shows and movies - even by australian actors because "they have to" - we might be used to it and see your effort as pretty minimal.

I'd give you a pen anyday. Have a good one!

I think enjoying parroting is one of the keys of getting good at pronunciation in a second language as an adult. If you smile while doing so it'll probably help the conversation along too.

That isn't really relevant to the article. The article is only comparing native English speakers to non-native English speakers, not other languages.

The comment you are replying to is exhibiting the result of the article's poor communication style. The way it was written comes across as too confrontational and sets people up to be defensive.

I work with teams across the globe and I can say this has been true in my experience. The experience of communicating with others for whom English is not only a second language, but a lingua franca used to communicate across other language boundaries, is distinctly not one where I am the advantaged communicator, because I am the less versed speaker of the lingua franca version of the dialect. (Imagine switching from a BSD to Ubuntu with no Linux experience. Lots rhymes and sounds the same, but might trip up an experienced user who has built up years of expectations.)

My wife has been showing me Twogether, a show about two celebrities from different countries whose only common language is English, and who are made to travel and perform tasks together in countries whose languages they don't speak.

It's fascinating to hear the version of English they speak to each other. It's not US or UK English, it's a combination of English, Korean, Chinese, intonation, facial expression, and gesture to communicate what they need in a given moment. It was odd for me to that they were actually able to use English to communicate with each other better than I, a native English speaker, could use to communicate with either of them. Built up context and the tendency of language to take the shape of its container resulted in a patois better suited to their purposes than the language I use every day, and in a business context, pretending this doesn't happen is a recipe for failure, I believe.

I work in a multinational company in a non English speaking country, and we use English officially. I'm not trying to be snobby when I say the English we speak is different from what I would speak in UK, and I've found myself adapting to the special grammar that we use. I've come to the conclusion that there are many equally valid "Englishes", e.g. American, Aussie, Indian, south African etc and being snooty because their particular grammatical styles or pronunciations don't match the ones you grew up with just makes you a prick. Lots of my compatriots still do though.

Funnily enough I’ve had to explain this to my friends when ordering in Chinese or other ethic restaurants. Something like “hi, how are you? I’d like the roast duck with rice please, oh and with a Diet Coke too?” is actually quite confusing and a lot to parse when you’re a native Cantonese speaker rushing to serve 30 people. Instead “roast duck with rice, Diet Coke”, while rude sounding, is much preferable. It may seem a little condescending but learning to speak broken English is a rather useful skill.

I ended up with the prawn burger (KFC Japan) because I made the mistake of mentioning that I dont want the prawn burger.

You started to list the things you didn’t want?? That’s odd.

Not at all, it's similar to a proof by refutation. Assuming there was a finite number of dishes that could be ordered, it should be easy to prove it a sound and complete ordering rule.

I once had a sore throat and tried to order a drink that wasn't cold in a language I could barely speak, but I really tried to emphasize the not, and I ended up with an extra cold drink.

It's difficult to communicate effectively and you need the experience of failing several times in order to learn.

If you're in, say, Japan, where most people know a bit of English, it's important to be able to break yours so they understand you better. Even more so, being able to speak broken Japan-flavored English would be perfect if your goal is to convey a simple message by any means. Most tourists don't realize accent and pronunciation could make a word unrecognizable to non native speakers.

To give an example of the difference:

"Robot" in standard middle American would probably yield a confused stare.

"Roboto" pronounced like an overly effusive Italian would most likely be understood.

That was my experience too. I got into a taxi with my wife and I tried to make sure he took credit card. I asked "credit card" in as clear English I could. The driver was confused. Tried again. My wife asked "curedito cado" and he said yes immediately. (Caveat, wife is Korean but Korean transliteration of credit card is not that same as Japanese.)

I thought people would understand clear, slow English (I assumed after school they'd most pick up from American/British movies?) but I guess after a while they only hear the local transliterated version of words. Or only remember that version? I don't know.

Nothing to do with Japan and Japanese, but in my experience the way that consontants sound in most English accents makes them hard to identify correctly for most non-native English speakers.

And the same goes for French also - except in French the vowels also are weird. But now that I think of it, actually, so do the English vowels. "eoouhw" for "o"? What?

Other European languages have idiosyncratic pronounciations of consonants, and Danish in particular is unpronounceable and undecipherable by anyone but the Danish (Source: my friend learns Danish and says the Danish have telepathy, which is apparently a standard joke in other Scandinavian countries with languages derived from Old Norse. Also :P).

What makes English consonants sound weird to my Greek ears is the way they are always a bit... airy? An "r" is an "aahh'r". An "s" is an "ehssss". A "d" is a "dheeh". And so on. In Spanish, "r" is "RRRR", "s" is "SS" and "d" is "D'". And so it is in Greek and in Italian also. And in most Balkan or slavic languages, etc. The Germans say "krchhh'" when they want to say "r" but OK, it's German, they don't mean you no harm. The French say "erggh'", I guess, I can't really do it justice in writing. But try imagining how it is to be a native of a non-Indoeuropean language and trying to understand the airy consontants and drawn-out vowels of English. Hell. Or, well... 'eohll.

Speaking of the French, guys, I speak French since I was 2 and I also speak English. I assure you, they are not supposed to sound the same. Please believe me.

(big :p in this comment, OK?)

Yes English has this round, airy, flowy, smeared out, rolled-together pronunciation, most vowels are diphtongs, they are not constant but take an "arc" when pronounced. Consonants are often aspirated as well,or dropped or reduced. Many other languages are much more straightforward.

This is somewhat off-topic, but as a native English speaker who has spent a lot of time conversing in English with non-native speakers, I've been struck by how many times non-native speakers will come up with a phrase that is perfectly proper English, but nothing a native speaker would ever have said, and quite poetic. It's often a charming surprise.

I'm glad you appreciate that. My mother tongue is Cantonese and for a long time I spoke French better than English because I moved to Montreal when I was a kid. I still say weird things in English, even though, like you said, they are perfectly proper English; mostly just because I don't know the native idioms.

I think the point of avoiding acronyms and abbreviations isn't strong enough, because it doesn't explain how much they can creep into most conversation. As an example, here's how something can become gradually less specific, and gradually shortened. (I have an American Midwest accent, so not all of these shortenings will be applicable to all accents.)

> I'm hungry. Would you like to get lunch and continue discussing this as we eat?

Good clear statement, motivation, question, and proposed action. But there's some repetition. If I'm the one suggesting lunch, it can be assumed that I am hungry, so that doesn't need to be mentioned.

> Would you like to get lunch and continue discussing this as we eat?

Now we add in some cultural context, that people generally eat lunch around noon, and that it is generally a social affair. Asking if somebody wants to get lunch implicitly includes the question of having lunch as a group.

> Would you like to get lunch?

In the same manner, rather than asking about the intended action of "having lunch", one can instead ask about previous actions, with the assumption that somebody will join in on a social activity.

> Have you eaten yet?

Depending on the level of formality, both the choice of words and the level of diction can be chosen to progressively shorten the phrase.

> Did you eat yet?

> Didja eat yet?

> Djeet yet?

The last one, when spoken and in the context of a co-worker asking shortly before noon, is understandable as a social request by a native speaker with a similar accent, even though it's missing over half of the syllables needed to even be grammatically correct.

To be fair, "Did you eat yet?" in this context seems to be universal across languages and cultures for office workers. The "Djeet yet?" will naturally be different depending on language and accent, but my point is that this is not exclusive to the English language. Someone who is familiar with the practice of asking if a coworker has eaten their midday meal in their native tongue will recognize the same nuance if they know the literal English translation.

In French: à la soupe !

As an older person who probably needs a hearing aid, I have the most problem with native English speakers not enunciating words. They go fast and run words together or mumble like Noam Chomsky. I have sympathy for ESL people trying to parse it. I always turn on subtitles if available. Also, a Brazilian friend says the don't use much sarcasm, so it gets difficult understand when English speakers use it so much to mean the opposite of what they say.

MTV Europe used non-native speakers in the 90ies, they would be understood across Europe. Native speakers pronounced 'better' but less pronounced.

I definitely have had this issue. I'm a native English speaker and taught in Europe for a few years, where a subset of students had trouble understanding me, mostly because I would just drop too many consonants and run words together. E.g. if speaking quickly, I tend to pronounce "because" as one syllable, something like "biz". I've moved towards much more consciously enunciating words in mixed-nationality settings. Americans now sometimes think I sound foreign though!

All of us with hearing loss in the human speech frequency range appreciate your efforts!

> The non-native speakers, it turns out, speak more purposefully and carefully, typical of someone speaking a second or third language. Anglophones, on the other hand, often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture, says Chong

Isn’t this a description of native vs non-native speakers in many languages?

Yes. This is just another article trying to attack English by singling it out for scenarios that occur in every language. It's part of human communication and behavior, not a flaw inherent to English. Otherwise, what's the implication, that non-English speakers universally speak slowly and without any kind of idioms or color? That's disproven within a year of learning any new language

Well, there are a lot of Americanisms in business speak that just aren't frequent in international business that the unaware US speaker, for instance, will have difficulty expressing themselves without these colloquialisms or even being aware they are using them if they are not used to it. e.g. with baseball alone,

* in the ballpark of (around)

* touch base (have a short chat for mutual understanding of something)

* dropped the ball (fucked up on something you are responsible for)

* heavy hitter (the one that brings a lot of cash, etc.)


> Isn’t this a description of native vs non-native speakers in many languages?

I'd venture to guess, that only with English you can find businesses that run in English but native speakers are a minority in the company.

There's other cultures where most people don't natively speak the business language/dialect - not all Chinese speakers are native Mandarin for instance.

Actually, there's some Japanese companies that try to use English in the office even if they don't have any foreigners.

> Isn’t this a description of native vs non-native speakers in many languages?

Not necessarily. The key idea from the article in the phrase "specific to their own culture". There isn't one English in the world. There are now many versions which are bound to cultures and differ in the idioms and sayings used. Think about all of the sports based sayings and metaphors you are used to. Many of them won't mean much to English speakers in other countries.

Either way, communicating with people from other cultures, even when using the same language, remains a sticky wicket.

not just idioms but also pronounciation and grammar, e.g. Indian English has it's own grammatical rules distinct from others, and it certainly also applies to British/US English and others.

I'd say that most languages go into a much deeper level of detail than English does, by default.

What do you mean by level of detail? That concepts are spelled out more explicitly?

I think most languages and cultures have conceptual shortcuts. Every culture/language has their “Shaka, when the walls fell” from Star Trek (here I go with the conceptual shortcuts).

I mean more like they seem to prefer spelling out the exact problem, instead of using a generic phrase, like "this solution has proven inadequate".


Which languages and in which contexts?

At the very least Indians, Chinese and Japanese complain about those, and English speakers who learn them face the opposite problem, at least with the latter two, so it isn't a native/non native problem.

Gendered articles and honorifics come to mind, that's where for example German has more "details" that afaik don't really exist in a comparable version in English, like duzen vs siezen.

Articles themselves are relatively rare (though they're a European areal feature, to the extent that they're added into some languages that otherwise wouldn't have them). Gender is another thing that isn't universal at all - and where it does exist, is more likely to distinguish between, say, long pointy things, humans, and non-flesh food than between masculine and feminine.

Not like that. It's more about what amount of information you are expected to share in any given context vs. what would be seen as excessive, such as would you expect to hear "there was an accident" or "a valve broke and the cooling fluid spilled".

You won't find things like this in a grammar book, it's kid of more like what bitrate the language aims for.

I think the article touches on a few interesting points, but only at a fairly shallow.

What I have noticed working with various levels of bilinguals is that native vs non-native often have different misunderstandings.

A native person firing something off to another native will make too many assumptions. "I understand what 'it' is. No need to elaborate" is the feeling.

Non-natives tend to lean on a smaller set of vocabulary and grammar. This tends to serve them well in slower, written communication but can give them trouble in speaking when there is a miscommunication and they don't have the skills to correct it. Over- or under-applying a rule past it's breaking point. They also have to contend with false friends(words to be related across languages but actually have different meanings), which can sometimes cause very hard to spot miscommunications as both speaker and listener have separate but consistent ideas in their heads.

When it comes to accents, in general it can be considered rude to ask someone to modify their accent. I know that if I affect a general American accent I will be understood better, but should I?

The article echoes what General Jim Mattis commented on the topic of leadership in one of his interviews - (paraphrasing) decisions take an hour to make, the rest of the day is spent crafting the message to ensure there's no room for ambiguity or misunderstanding.

On the subject: I highly recommend "The culture map" book.

It provides a dozen of dimensions on communication and compares on real world examples how American, German, French, Chinese, Japanese and several other nationalities approach certain situations, and summarizes each dimension with a scale and puts each country in the left/middle/right.


It talks things like "why X are so aggressive and direct" and "why Y are so $adjective".

I lived in France for 9 years and worked extensively with non-native speakers in English. My accent and word choice definitely shifted to a more international, neutral English at work. However if I started chatting 1:1 with a native speaker at lunch my speed and word choice would immediately shift and the other coworkers couldn't follow a damn thing.

I see this happening regurarily and i have to say that it heavily depends on the native speakers nationality.

Americans (at least if they don't speak some thick dialect) are easy to understand due to movies etc.

Brits are ok enough, but some dialects get tricky.

Irish and scottish usually are not understood by the absolute majority of participants. I pride myself in my ability to understand spoken english (relative to my peers here in germany at least) but even for me it is nearly impossible to understand an irishman talking over zoom etc. with some random headset.

That's fascinating. I know there's a lot of variation in how "strong" Irish accents can be, but when listening to someone from Dublin, sometimes it takes me, as a native English speaker with a slight Philadelphia accent, multiple sentences to realize they're not American. The giveaway will usually be a word beginning with voiceless th, like "three", which most Irish people pronounce like "tree".

For example, the housing expert here: https://youtu.be/UwmxehOidaY?t=73

Edit: Ha, turns out that guy lived in LA until he was 11: http://www.karldeeter.com/about/

I spent a semester in college in the Czech Republic with international students from all over Europe, all of whom spoke English. All the Americans learned to speak “European English” — slowed down, more verbose, without slang — because we were frequently told that we could not be understood otherwise. It became pronounced enough that people I would talk to back home would notice it. And for what it’s worth I couldn’t understand the students from the UK when they were speaking to each other either.

I was on the bus on time, a cute family was ahead of me, speaking some incomprehensible babble. "I wonder what part of scandinavia they're from", thought I. Then the father turns to me and asks some pleasantry with his british accent. I think those types recognize the degree to which they're dialect can't be broadly understood, and tune it appropriately. Perhaps americans are less aware of the need because accents are locally much more homogeneous.

I think it may be more a "monolinguals are hard to understand in a lingua franca situation" issue. It just happens that a lot of English speakers are monolingual compared to speakers of most other languages.

When you learn a new language, particularly as an adult, you learn that you have limitations in its use and to be able to accept and work around them. You learn that that's nothing to be ashamed of, because you put in a hell of a lot of work and can now function in what used to sound like complete nonsense to you. You learn to prioritize keeping things short and simple to minimize the chance of your being miss understood.

In your native language, amongst native speakers, everyone's so skillful at communication that there's often more of a focus on how something is said than what is said. I.e. it's so clear that other speakers will understand a speaker's basic "I want to have this done by tomorrow" message - however they formulate it - that they often put more focus on other issues, such adding jokes or word-play, ensuring the correct level of politeness is used or communicating the nuisances of their current emotional situation. To other native speakers, that results in a richer signal, one containing more information which costs them no effort to understand and which they can filter out or pay attention to as they wish. To a non-native speaker, that additional information is just noise: like listening to a message over a bad radio signal. It costs them a lot of effort to attempt to understand it, they often fail in doing so and it gets in the way of their comprehendig the core message. They just want to hear "I need it by tomorrow morning", not "If it isn't too much trouble, is there any chance we could get this done by tomorrow?"

A monolingual can get this in the abstract, but it's easy for them to forget. Someone who's gone through the millions of minor embarrassments, humiliations and triumphs it takes to master a second language is far better disposed to remember it and act on it in practice.

Misused English words and expressions in EU publications [0]

> Over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English. It includes words that do not exist or are relatively unknown to native English speakers outside the EU institutions and often even to standard spellcheckers/grammar checkers (‘planification’, ‘to precise’ or ‘telematics’ for example) and words that are used with a meaning, often derived from other languages, that is not usually found in English dictionaries (‘coherent’ being a case in point).

[0] https://www.eca.europa.eu/Other%20publications/EN_TERMINOLOG...

Interesting - similar to many institutions of course.

Bovine, Ovine, Caprine, Porcine and Asinine animals

Comitology, Decommitted, Negative evolution

Unfortunately the list seems to concentrate on British English usage - for example “Hierarchical superior” makes perfect sense to me.

There are some very surprising examples of EU English where I would read the exact opposite meaning (however New Zealand English is my mother tongue, so perhaps that is my own bias).

And after brexit, what use does the EU have for English anyway?

It's a lingua franca.

Ireland is still a member state. Plus, they'd have to decide on another common language. Would they rather it be German?

I think there is a fundemental misattribution where the author talks about monolingual speakers.

Speaking to non-native speakers in a language is a seperate skill that can be learned without proficiency in a second language. It takes skill and care to keep your sentence structure simple and independent of semantic nuance or idiom.

People for whom English is a lingua franca have almost exclusively used English to speak to other non-native speakers and have lots of practice doing this.

At work we need to speak on a day to day basis with Spanish speakers from other countries. Spanish is our native language.

We share with every new hire a list of words that can be misunderstood and that they shouldnt use, and also list of words of the other countries so they can understand them better.

Many years ago I had the chance to work in a research institute in Ireland.

A common line for newcomers who worried about their ability to speak was that we had 25 or 35 different nationalities, and the Irish were the only ones having problems communicating in English.

It is pretty obvious if you think about it, and not specific to any language: native speakers of X have to make an effort to speak "international basic X" and they are generally not used to do that.

The Anglosphere covers more than half of the world, being used to deal with other cultures and adapting to that should be taken for granted.

You're assuming that all people who speak English are fungible. Someone who's spent their whole life talking to Americans in Ohio is absolutely not going to have experience "toning down" their English to the same degree that someone who grew up speaking with Americans and Latinos in San Diego. So sure, the Anglosphere covers half the globe, but the only relevant part of it is the part that actually interfaces with other languages.

As a non native speaker I struggle with this. I work with some native speakers which are more articulate, use a more complex sentence structure, speak faster and speak a lot longer. I often loose track of what they are saying and it is very hard to argue against them. I feel like a three year old.

I have the same problem when arguing in foreign languages. It is very frustrating. You feel powerless.

You’ve managed to confuse “loose” and “lose” exactly like a native speaker!

The goal of communication is understanding. The native speakers you speak with need to work harder, the same as you do.

I'm a native English speaker who ironically first encountered the use of English as a lingua franca when I moved to London for the first time. London turned out to be a much more cosmopolitan place than anywhere that I'd lived before and I'd say that around 50% of my colleagues at work were non-native English speakers, as were a similar percentage of the new friends that I made. I quite quickly learned to change the way that I spoke in order to be understood, and I learned that certain words that I'd used all my life were not even recognised internationally. The example that I remember vividly: a Polish colleague had to ask me why I kept saying "ta". Where my family comes from, "ta" is short for "thanks" and I had used it all my life without even thinking about it. It was one small example of the things that I had to try to un-learn in order to be understood in the more international environment that I found myself in.

As the article states, many English speakers are monolingual and probably have a hard time empathising with the struggles that non-native speakers can have with a language. I worry that the situation will only get worse. English is now spoken by so many people in so many places and the incentives (and opportunities) for English speakers to learn other languages are consequently increasingly small.

My weird anecdote. English is a not native language for me (Russian is my native language) and I have issues listening to native English persons, but I have almost no issues listening to English with Russian accent. So, I guess, that depends on a receiving side.

Amusing anecdote.

I was in a class with a Japanese instructor. I had a great deal of trouble understanding him. A hand was raised and a person began talking with a very different accent (Finnish) and I understood very little of that. The Japanese instructor understood the question and replied. I however understood almost nothing of the entire exchange. This may be the future for native English language speakers or perhaps is already the norm in some parts of the world.

As a non-native speaker of a non-English language, I'm often the "translator" for other non-native speakers, helping native speakers understand them.

Really all I'm doing is repeating what the non-native speaker said verbatim, but with an accent that the native speaker is more familiar with.

If they were speaking Japanese, Finnish (and Spanish) have very similar phonetics, to the point a lot of Finnish words also mean totally unrelated things in Japanese.

I'm interested in the minimal "Globish" subset of English this article mentions. It would be an interesting idea to have a variant of hemmingwayapp or grammarly that tries to automatically test if a bit of text conforms to it. This doesn't seem all that technically difficult, and would be the kind of thing some organizations would pay for if there's proof that it makes a bit of writing harder to misinterpret.

Misunderstandings like the "one word" issue cited at the beginning of the article are common among native speakers. I'm sure everyone has been to meetings where parties walked out the door having agreed to diametrically opposite things.

It is not necessarily a matter of English vs. non-English speakers but whether you have empathy with your audience. (Plus a bit of project management to ensure everyone understands decisions.)

Also everyone dancing around discussing/bringing up concrete objective milestones because it’s hard! Hah.

If the details never come up and need to be agreed up (including dates or hard deliveries), it’s easy to not realize you don’t agree at all.

> Native English speakers are the world's worst communicators

The article makes this claim, but doesn't substantiate it. The content of the article has nothing to do with a comparative study on communication. Always disappointing to see clickbait from the BBC.

I suggest the title be changed to something like Native English speaker are generally bad at tuning into language variation.

edit I see NikolaeVarius beat me to it.

I'd suggest "People are generally bad at tuning into language variation." I'm not sure that native English speakers have any particular lock on that.

They may get more opportunities to make that mistake, since (a) they're often monolingual, and (b) they're more likely to be speaking to a non-native speaker (what with English being the international language these days). But it's not inherent to either the language or the speakers.

Perhaps TFA was written by a native English speaker?

So what was the word?? This is like those articles about photos that don't actually include the photo.

We're looking for a word that is:

- highly industry-specific

- has two contradictory definitions in some dictionary

- possibly identifying a multinational company

The only thing I can think of is "tabling" something, which means to put on the agenda in most places but to remove from the agenda in the US.


Off the top of my head was it the Citibank Revlon issue? I seem to remember there being a break down in communication between Indian Staff and the US staff.

No, that was just a super shitty software UI: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2021/02/citibank-just-go...

It's probably not this, but a native English speaker saying "That's the shit!" probably means "That thing is great" but someone who's not very fluent might think the speaker doesn't like the thing.

I guess it happens in all languages. Here in Argentina sometimes you can use some insults as a great compliment to a friend. [It's tricky to know when you can use them, which one, and have the correct intonation and body posture, so don't try it.]

And you can use a compliment like "Muy bien. Te feliciiito." ("Very good. I congratulate you." But with a long ee sound in the middle of the last word) And it means something like "You are an idiot" / "You made a big mistake".

I had a chuckle a while back when here on HN, one poster replied to another with the words: Oh, fuck off! The next sentence was That's amazing! Turns out that they were quite happy about the information in the parent post. Something like "I wish I had known that five years ago."

I thought to myself, that has to be a Brit, but admittedly I'm not familiar enough with the way various native speakers of English use the language to know for sure. To us furriners, it can sure be a bit confusing some times :)

There are parts of the English speaking world where 'cunt' is used as term of endearment.

In one episode of Black Books, main character Manny finds out he can play piano. Other character Bernard wants to use it to impress a woman, so he forces Manny to hide inside the piano and play using spoons. Manny does it but later refuses to do it again. To convince him to do it one more time, Bernard offers him one whole week of vacation. Manny looks at Bernard, then extend his arms forwards, palms open up, and says: "spoon me".

In my native language we use declension everywhere. I could awkwardly say the same in my language, something like "olyžicujte ma" (o=equip/cover, lyžica=spoon, ujte=keep doing something, me=ma) - it is technically correct, but english didn't need to change any of those words, it just worked. English can convey the same meaning without unnecessary complexity.

I like this simplicity in language, it feels somehow superior. Simpler is better.

I think what you are talking about is really analytic vs synthetic languages. English is more analytic than most European languages, but there are other languages which are also analytic, like Mandarin, Swedish, and Maori.


In analytic languages, speakers use word order and additional words to convey relationships. However, this does not mean that analytic languages are simpler, it just means that the complexity is different.

For example, English usually requires that you use the correct word order, correct articles, and correct prepositions. "A customer is angry about the movie." You cannot change word order. You must use the correct article ("a" customer, "the" movie), and correct preposition ("angry about", not "angry at"). In some other languages, these details like "a" / "the" are not important.

Sentences like "Spoon me" or "beer me" rely on the fact that English uses word order instead of declension. The sentence must have a verb, and "me" is not a verb, so the word before "me" is treated as a verb. The words are simple and flexible, but the word order is very strict.

See e.g. OSACOMP rule for adjectives. Something most native speakers don't realize they know (but they do).

If someone without context had walked into the room and heard him say “spoon me”, they’d likely think something very different were going on.

“Spoon” as a verb usually means something like “cuddle me” - as in “let’s be like spoons and fit all our curves really close together”.

It seems like the “o” in “olyžicujte ma” clarified that you’re talking about equipping.

I haven’t seen the show, but that double entendre on “spoon” might have been one layer of the joke.

Yes, I can definitely relate to this. English is not my native tongue. I’m acutely aware of the presence of other non-native speakers in the room and instinctively switch to simple terms and avoid the use of colloquialisms. Native speakers generally do not have that instinct.

This explains a lot. I only speak English, but I've been working on communicating more clearly. I used to provide a lot of backstory/context when talking because I wanted people to know how to interpret what I was about to say. It turns out the real problem was me not speaking plainly and simply. When you use the right words people are more likely to take what you say at face value (that's probably a phrase I shouldn't use) rather than assume some interpretation of it.

English is a very flexible and expressive language, but those features aren't what you want to use for precise communication.

Insofar as efficiency equates with precision (kind of, I would have thought), here's some data that doesn't take your view. English comes out top out of seven popular languages but only just.


I wonder which you think is a more precise language than English? As a monoglot, I can't comment.

I know Swedish, so my comment is that English frequently feels imprecise. If you want to make sure a sentence will be interpreted unambiguously, you have to pile on a lot of extra verbiage, which people don't normally do because precision is not that important in most cases. By contrast, Swedish normally leaves less room for multiple interpretations, which makes brevity easier to achieve.

Esperantists have been pointing this out for over a century now. As others have noted, this isn't just a problem with English, but the choice of any national language as a lingua franca. If we choose Esperanto instead of English as our language for international communication, we are all second-language learners, and no one has the advantage of being the native speaker. Plus, since Esperanto has so few idioms, we'll all be better understood.

It doesn’t help that native English speakers are less inclined to learn another language and don’t get to understand the experience of being at the other end

There isn't the same motivation if you already speak the lingua franca.

My experience learning a foreign language as a native English speaker, is that people in the target country are sometimes puzzled as to why you want to learn it.

They also then have a strong preference to practice English with you instead, which is understandable, if not frustrating.

Less inclined, or with less incentive, and fewer opportunities? Whereas English is omnipresent. Finding good teachers is always tough in a monolingual environment. I'm reminded of visiting China in the 2000s, many Chinese languages, rarely foreign languages, but a hunger to learn English from native speakers.

I believe it to be a cultural thing. Sure, you don’t necessarily have the incentive to learn a language for work but the education system does not promote it either. I know a lot mainland European who speak languages other than English just out of interest for other cultures with no real use in their daily job.

Ismo, the comedian sums it up in great style[0] [1].

"I've got shit to do" means anything but actually going to the bathroom.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igh9iO5BxBo

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAGcDi0DRtU

Reminds me about how the EU has kinda created its own version of English loaning from the other European languages; Euro English [0]

[0] https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/23/world-language-day-do-yo...

I'm a native English speaker and I find the use of colloquialisms, abbreviations, and the like frustrating as well. There is no good reason to not take care in the choice of words when communicating in a professional setting, regardless of the language used or the native language(s) audience receiving the communication.

Two thoughts come to mind.

1. At one time in human history, not long ago, it was mandatory to have some facility in at least a 2nd language to claim you had a higher education. Partial mastery of a 2nd language would help native English speakers "get" what it's like for the non-native people and might help them adjust there speaking style. IMHO we have allowed "higher" education in English speaking countries to devolve in this regard.

2. We might be entering an era where English begins to morph into new dialects as did Latin when it was the "Lingua Franca" of the time. The 2nd language population will overwhelm the native English speakers and so control the language.

( "Lingua Franca" is probably one of those terms that one should not use internationally, unless you are in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal or Romania) :)

"Lingua Franca" refers to an earlier period in history when French was the common language used across Europe, among the nobility in particular. You can read it as "common language for international communication" to understand why it's used to qualify the "globish" variant of English nowadays.

Admittedly, using a latin expression literally describing French to mean English may be slightly confusing...

No, that's a misconception. It doesn't refer to French. It's about the language of the Franks.

Thanks for the correction, I was indeed wrong (parts of my comments were based on true facts but parts were clearly wrong, which is harmful). Honest mistake, I'm glad you spotted it so that I avoid propagating it in the future.

To be dishonestly picky, French is somehow etymologically the "language of the Franks"... However, from what I just read, while "lingua franca" designates a vehicular language (which is the main thing to remember about the expression), it was originally used to refer to a simplified mix of languages (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French among others).

Thanks again, I guess I made long ago a lazy intellectual shortcut conflating my somehow credible explanation with the actual origin of the expression.

> "Lingua Franca" is probably one of those terms that one should not use internationally, unless you are in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal or Romania

I'm not sure what you mean. Are you perhaps confusing lingua franca with romance language?

I was implying that due to its Latin origin (?) it might be less familiar to non-native speakers.

Regarding your second point, this might be of interest to you:


Until today I thought "Lingua Franca" just meant "French language" and the usage of the phrase signified how commonplace French was in international diplomacy. Glad to learn something new.

“Lingua franca” is English[1].

[1] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/lingua-franca

Article seems to be selling the Globbish thing mentioned in the middle?

IMO if you get an ambiguous phrase in any language, ask for clarification. Especially if it's work related.

What's more annoying is the cultural differences, mainly anglo saxons always being in a hurry and almost never considering the long term consequences.

You can learn how to be better understood as a native speaker without having to go abroad or even speak to a lot of people using English as a second language. In the UK, live in a city like Birmingham, for instance, with a strong local accent and even, in some parts like the Black Country, a unique syntax, e.g. "How am ya?". Now go live for a while in, for the sake of argument, Glasgow, with their own particular patois and accent.

Why does this article make me think the problem is perhaps mainly with those native English speakers who haven't been exposed much to their own language as it's spoken in the regions?

Conversely, I lived for a while with a Glaswegian who had moved to the South of England, having lived his whole life in Glasgow. It was interesting watching him realise that he had to moderate his speech, otherwise so much of what he said was lost. Over time, he stopped using some of the specifically regional stuff that nobody understood.

This is complicated because Scots (distinct from Gaelic) is a language - with multiple dialects (you wouldn't speak Doric in Glasgow) - and people from Scotland freely intermix with English. If you've grown up there as an English speaker you may not even realized it until you move somewhere it isn't spoken, so lots of loan words etc. you are used to don't exist.

Even easier: pick up an introductory Greek or Latin textbook. I didn't know English grammar until I bought a Greek book and worked through it on my own.

Greek and/or Latin will get you to "schoolbook English" grammar... which was deliberately designed to make learning Greek and Latin easier, and has only a distant relationship to the actual grammar of English.

I try to work really hard on not using too many idioms and sayings in slack. Same goes for memes specific to American culture. Or if I use one accidentally, define the meaning.

OTOH sometimes other native English speakers get frustrated with this, and I’ll hear feedback like “YES WE KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS” when in reality this person is just speaking for themselves...

It’s a tricky balance because if I know someone has a shared cultural context, idioms, etc can make the communication more fluid, efficient etc. So I find it’s a constant calibration.

> didn't reveal the tricky word because it is highly industry-specific and possibly identifiable

I suspect this article (or at this part of the article) is bs.

Non-native speakers know highly industry-specific words very well, because it is the words they are using every day. Moreover, industry-specific words in business correspondence rarely have double meaning unlike everyday words.

> Chia Suan Chong, a UK-based communications skills and intercultural trainer

likely made up this story to get some publicity, but could not find a good simple example.

Ah yes, less fluency makes for better communication, and more fluency makes for worse communication, but only for English speakers. There has got to be a meme in here somewhere.

is there any hard evidence of this or is this just from anecdotes?

I have my own anecdote - my swedish coworkers use more english slang and speaking shortcuts than many native speakers I know.

Teaching English to adults for three months here in Germany was excellent preparation for working with non-native English speakers. I learned how to aim my own word choices and pronunciation, how to extract meaning from garbled sentences, and how to find non-disruptive ways to rephrase things to confirm that I understood them the way the speaker intended and to help them confirm that they understood me correctly.

Yes, but it's not really understood by most people (not just English). People think they are an expert at their own language in every aspect and can teach it well, but it's not so. For example when there's a non native Hungarian speaker, many of my fellow Hungarians are really bad at helping out with a difficulty, they don't understand what the person is actually asking, they go on a tangent and explain something totally unrelated, explain it wrong etc. But they are convinced they know what they are talking about.

Accent is another sore point, I find understanding non-native speakers' accent to be way easier than understanding what some native speakers say.

Probably if you're a native speaker you've been exposed in your life to the different dialects and accents - as a non-native speaker the chances of you knowing how the different dialects influence words and pronunciation are much slimmer.

I'm German. I've had an Arabic colleague translate (=dumb down) my English to another German colleague. Vocabulary was the issue. "I think I spider."[1] It felt like having to rewrite a map-reduce to a loop in order to pass code review.

[1] http://ithinkispider.com/

Was the word “inflammable”?

I'm guessing "penultimate". Non-native speakers look up the dictionary definition, while the average American knows it means "really awesome".

While the french equivalent "pénultième" is rarely heard and considered as pedantic, "antépénultième" is actually much more frequently used to avoid the ugly "avant-avant-dernier" (very really awesome).

"Penultimate" is American slang for "really awesome"?

Nope. Parent was attempting a weird joke, which failed badly.

I don't get the joke.

It seemed somewhat plausible or serious to me because "ultimate" is slang for "really cool" in India. (At least it was when I was growing up; who knows what the cool kids there say these days.) But I was puzzled because I've spent the majority of my adult life in North America, and never heard "penultimate" used that way.

I was wrong. Apparently it is slang, in some places at least:

> The word penultimate as a slang word seems to have worked its way into common parlance thanks to the slang use of the word ultimate. As a slang term, ultimate means cool rather than last. So the hipster logic may have concluded that if ultimate means cool, then penultimate must mean super cool.


I assumed the parent was making a joke that something like this would be the case. Turns out it really is. "Never underestimate the stupidity of..."

I think it's used in marketing sometimes because it sounds cool, so you'll assume it means something good if you don't understand it. Doesn't come up a lot though.

I'm guessing "infamous". You know, when someone becomes more than just famous, then become "infamous".

I shouldn't start on these but I fail to resist, since you bring one of them on the discussion.

This is one of numerous "faux-amis" that are so tricky for native French speakers. While "fameux" has the meaning an English speaker would expect, "Infâme" means odious. Other examples include "éventuellement" that means possibly (and not surely in the future), "actuellement" which translates as "nowadays" (and not really) etc.

It may be chauvinism, but etymological and geographical clues let be believe that most of these are french words that have been imported into English and whose meanings changed radically. Admittedly, some probably share a common latin origin and were declined into similar words but retaining a different subset of their original meanings.

It is often a source of weird misunderstandings between native French and English speakers, neither of which are famous for their mastery at learning foreign languages...

How would that lead to the industry the company works in?

Don't take my comment too seriously. It's a scene from a movie actually.

Ya ain sayin mat'!

We English non-native speaker typically do not know colloquial English well. Another thing that was not taught to me is how important intonations, which are unwritten, are and how much natives rely on it.

The same happens in other languages, of course to a lesser degree.

I now know how to speak in very standard and slang free Spanish, very different to the Spanish I use with friends.

Is this another case of worse is better? Dammit.

(also funny that the title is native speakers are hard to understand in an honest language situation, I would say it's natural)

I grew up in India. I live in the U.S. now. I am a hostage to this situation and I am suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

Try to get an Australian passport. It helps I hear.

Ha ha, I am learning to say mate with every sentence. Thanks Mate.

No worries!

Now I'm curious what the old title was.

Probably the title of the article.

LOL yeah, that makes sense. Thanks :)

>The message, written in English, was sent by a native speaker to a colleague for whom English was a second language. Unsure of the word, the recipient found two contradictory meanings in his dictionary. He acted on the wrong one.

>When such misunderstandings happen, it’s usually the native speakers who are to blame.

So...somebody got a message they felt was ambiguous and confused them, didn't ask for clarification before acting upon it, made a huge mistake but it was the person who sent the message originally's fault?

Personally, having been in the opposite situation, where i'm one of the only native English speakers at a workplace. If i didn't understand something somebody wrote or said to me, i made damn sure i double checked with them before i actually did anything.

Agreed. The article is a fluff piece, using the most generic and sanitized anecdotes. What WORD was not understood? What was the culture of the sender vs receiver? Did I miss where there was any statistical information presented in the article? What other languages/native speakers were reviewed before determining English speakers won the title of world's worst communicators?

>> but it was the person who sent the message originally's fault?

That's not what the article said at all. It seemed to place the blame on the word. I'm with you that one person should have sought clarification since they knew there were two meanings, but that's not actually the root cause. Another person may have only been aware of one of those meanings and made the "mistake" without ever thinking they needed clarification. The problem was the use of ambiguous language.

I find it really amusing to see someone thinking they blamed the sender. It seems like another example of how English speakers are so used to having to interpret words.

The article specifically says that native english speakers are to blame, not the word.

> When such misunderstandings happen, it’s usually the native speakers who are to blame. Ironically, they are worse at delivering their message than people who speak English as a second or third language, according to Chong.

>> Months later, senior management investigated why the project had flopped, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It all traced back to this one word,” says Chia Suan Chong, a UK-based communications skills and intercultural trainer, who didn't reveal the tricky word because it is highly industry-specific and possibly identifiable. “Things spiralled out of control because both parties were thinking the opposite.”

Yeah, where does it say that? We could blame the sender for choosing an ambiguous word, or we could blame the recipient for not getting clarification, but they clearly place it on the word without pointing a finger at either human.

The overall article does point a finger at native english speakers for being imprecise, but the specific example doesn't IMHO.

I understood they were blaming the word. Words don't appear out of nowhere. The word was written by the sender, the implication is the sender's choice of words caused the problem which could have been avoided by using a different word.

I disagree with this premise and believe the problem could have been avoided had the receiver taken the self responsibility to make sure they fully understood the message before acting upon it and if they had doubts, such as when they found two contradictory meanings, should have just simply asked for clarification.

If you don't understand something, it's on you. I've been misunderstood, i've misunderstood other people and the easiest thing anyone can do in that situation is say:

'sorry i didn't quite get that' or 'sorry could you explain what you mean'

or something along those lines.

It’s clearly putting the fault at the native english speaker, per the title.

In an age of trigger culture and micro aggressions this article is a prejudicial sucker punch to native speakers of English.

You give the article too much credit. It's just a collection of words that weakly conveys a badly formed idea.

I find it irritating that the hook is a super-secret word that cannot be shared with the reader.

>i made damn sure i double checked with them before i actually did anything.

Ahh well, most non-native speakers would be concerned about their English proficiency level. For some that would be a quality worth mentioning in the hiring process.

My experience would that most people will shut off and don't ask for clarification but try and fill the gaps. It's a rather common issue.

You're right, it wasn't a very clear article. Kinda fluffy actually. But it did have one good point: that native English speakers often are not required to learn a second language to facilitate business, and so are less aware of the intricacies of intercultural communications (whereas everyone else had to learn English as a second language, so they're on more or less equal footing with each other).

Even in the English-speaking world, we run into similar issues communicating across borders, whether that's cultural differences across states, urban/rural divides, regional accents, or across countries (US/UK/Australia/South Africa/India, etc.)

I don't think the article presented enough evidence to support the headline that "native English speakers are the worst communicators". It's less about English vs any mother tongue being worse or better; rather, bilingualism has numerous benefits (intercultural communications being one of them), but many in the Anglosphere are not bilingual (because they're not forced to be, unlike people who have to learn English as a second language): https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428634-000-oh-to-be...

TLDR: Fluffy article, interesting underlying point


This is a terrible title and a terrible article.

The claims made here are tied to the fact that English is more or less the primary language of international business. Its well known that people who learn secondary languages tend to know the "rules" around the language and tend to be more specific when using secondary languages.

Its pretty weird for the article to conflate using slang/abbreviations/language tied to cultural norms from a primary speaker as being unable to communicate.

Other languages have built in cultural connotations that pretty much only matter within their specific culture that doesn't really make sense outside of it.

Sure when knowingly speaking to a multicultural audience, its probably for the best to not use idioms and such, but the failures of communication is not tied to the fact that English is being used.

I wonder where you are from, I for one really recognize this. N=1 but my native speaking colleague indeed dominates meetings. Of course personality is also a factor, but she also talks at incredible speeds in fancy ways that are almost hypnotic. It has made her our fall back when talking needs to be done. But in fact I sometimes feel that I should have conveyed a message myself because she gets the point I wanted to make slightly wrong in worrying ways.

On a different note, we always jokingly use Dutch saying in English:

* Stop stabbing the dragon with me!

* Ah there comes the monkey out of the sleeve!

Ah, well, the more cultures, the merrier!

You're missing the point of the article. If you're Scottish, it's probably hard to not use local flavor when talking, and thus it's hard for an international audience to understand. Even if you know the audience is international. It's just the way you talk.

If you're from Portugal, and you speak English, you're mostly not using some local flavor Portuguese words or expressions or jokes because they wouldn't make sense in English. So you speak simply and you're easy to understand.

> Other languages have built in cultural connotations that pretty much only matter within their specific culture that doesn't really make sense outside of it.

I once was trying to contact an engineer that had worked on a project before me. Their last name in git was just "R". After some searching and asking another colleague I found out that this is a special last name that is abbreviated that way.

I think the problem is that the way English phrases things is often completely bizarre compared to virtually any other language, which is confusing, as a seemingly straightforward sentence may imply something completely unexpected.

I think it might be because of its lack of real grammatical topic, which is otherwise ubiquitous and often more important than the subject.

I think a lot of this odd structuring is due to English leaning heavily on borrowed forms and rules that really have no ties to the underlying language.

Not that I'm blaming the language, just think it's curious at how many conflicting and skewed rules have just become a part of the language over hundreds of years.

Yeah, it gives the language ambiguity and nuance. It's pretty flipping valuable for the day to day poetry of the language. I personally derive a lot of humour from the ambiguity of the language.

I do recall a colleague of mine who was trying to learn English. He said I was one of the more difficult english speakers he'd ever met. It was fun to try to reel that in to be more clear. Eventually I just directed him to the urban dictionary.

The gist here is that English needs to be dumbed down and stripped of any cultural references in order to be intelligible to an international business audience. No surprises there.

To say that "native English speakers are the world's worst communicators" is quite a bold claim. Personally, I'd give that title to native French speakers.

I was going to follow up with a similar quip, but I think we're falling into old crypto-nationalistic stereotypes and maybe we should all try to be better, so...

"Personally, I'd give that title to middlemanagers who were promoted beyond their abilities."

I agree, it drives me nuts when I see bad hot takes on the English language by Anglophones. Articles in English about English are more often than not egocentric and short sighted.

I heard an Englishman quip that English is the only language where you can tell a person's class by their accent. Or a lot of people think English is the hardest language to learn because of its irregularities or terrible spelling rules. Or that our slang is somehow exceptional. Most of these people don't have enough experience in other languages to have any idea how they compare to English.

> To say that "native English speakers are the world's worst communicators" is quite a bold claim. Personally, I'd give that title to native French speakers.

I'm a native English speaker with French as my second language. In my experience "Business French" doesn't have nearly as many problems as English.

The statement "native English speakers are the world's worst communicators" is true because of the large number of English speakers in an international context, even when the average "badness" of an English speaker is no worse than of a French speaker.

This probably should be rewritten as "Native language speakers are the world's worst communicators".

...which could be generalized as, non-native speakers of a language have more difficulty understanding native speakers. It's a scientific breakthrough, I tell you!

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