Re: [NTLK] even more OT - Do you speak BBC English?

From: Lord Groundhog <>
Date: Sat Sep 01 2007 - 18:26:49 EDT

~~~ On 2007/09/01 19:04, dotline7 at wrote ~~~

> At some moment an other women came to
> join this group and of course started to speak English. Unfortunately none
> could understand her language. I pose a question: from which country she
> was? ... The answer is from... England.


I'm sorry if this is information you already know, or don't really want, but
it may be interesting for some people anyway.

Did you enquire from which part of England she came?

Understanding spoken English when talking to native speakers is a matter not
only having sufficient command of grammar, syntax and vocabulary, but also
of dialect and accent. Although the UK is a fairly small country
geographically, and has a population of less than 60,000,000, there a
suprising number of dialects spoken, many with their own vocabulary subset
and accent. Most of the time this isn't too much of a problem, but there
are a few accents, and a few regional vocabularies, that aren't always
easily understood even by other British people.

Once upon a time, British children learned at least to understand, if not to
speak, "RP", or Received Pronunciation, and standard English. This was
regarded as being what the monarch spoke and how he or she spoke it, and
also was required of BBC broadcasters in the old days, as your reference to
"BBC English" implies. For the most part, professional advancement beyond a
certain point depended upon being able to speak it as well.

Now, British children don't routinely learn RP and standard English, BBC
presenters rejoice in using their regional English (within reason), and
generally, employers haven't discriminated against people who keep their
regional accent for a very long time. They say even the Queen doesn't sound
the way she did when she was coronated. This means that although standard
English still exists it is no longer an enforced standard.

To give an extreme example, I once was guest lecturer in a class that
included a number of Scots. As my wife is Scottish, I usually can
understand Scots and many of their dialect-specific words and phrases. On
this occasion however, I found myself unable to understand and answer one of
the students, even after he repeated his question several times. Eventually
his best friend "interpreted" what he said not only to me and the rest of
the class but to the other Scots, who had no idea what he'd been saying.
The incomprehensible Scot in question was from a particular section of
Glasgow, and as I was told later that even people from other parts of
Scotland don't find this "Gorbals" accent easy to understand.

Meanwhile, in various parts of the United Kingdom there are those whose
fellow-countrymen don't understand them easily. Parts of Scotland, parts of
Yorkshire and the northeast of England, parts of Wales, and parts of the
southwest of England, are all areas where some native English speakers have
with accents that other native English speakers don't always find easy to

There is another thing. Most if not all languages have things like rules
about where to place accents on words, how to pronounce vowels, and other
such things. These are just two of the things that make up the distinctive
rhythms and lilts of a language -- the "music" of a language. It gets into
our ears and our minds at a very deep level, and that "music" becomes part
of how we know when we're speaking correctly. It isn't unusual for us
when we learn a foreign language to tend subconsciously to retain the
"music" of our native language. In the case of a moderately trained
language student, speaking the second language with the "music" of his first
language is enough to make native-speakers struggle to understand the
person. Speaking a foreign language with one's native "music" is one of the
last things that can give away an otherwise flawless language student when
he or she speaks to a native speaker. In some cases this "music" problem
even contributes to the difficulties I described in the previous paragraph
of comprehension between various British speakers of English.

The reasons I mention this are that it isn't easily addressed in language
classes where the priority must be grammar and syntax, vocabulary and basic
usage, and the "music" problem works both ways.

Really learning a native English "music", whichever one is chosen, requires
a fair amount of environmental exposure so that this new "music" becomes
associated with the language as it's being learned, until it becomes

It may be obvious that native speakers of English will find it hard to
understand someone speaking the English language but not with an English
"music" (ask anyone who has found themselves talking to an overseas call
centre). However, your example may also illustrate the reverse: that when
people who have practised speaking English to the sounds of a non-English
"music", and then have to listen to a native English speaker speaking to his
or her own English "music", the difficulty may be just as bad.

Altogether, speaking -- and hearing -- what we think of as "the same
language" is a lot trickier than one might expect! :)

And again, sorry if this is tedious, but like anything to do with how we do
or don't communicate is fascinating.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

łAny sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from a Newton.˛
            -- What Arthur C. Clarke meant to say
(With thanks to Chod Lang)

~~~ ~~~ ~~~
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Received on Sat Sep 1 18:27:18 2007

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