Why do some native English speakers use broken or grammatically incorrect English, when trying to communicate with someone who isn't a native English speaker, but who may understand some English? Do they think that somehow broken English is easier to understand?

  • 23

    JeffLee

    Because plurals, past participles, etc. are harder for beginners to grasp when spoken by a native. Learners who understand "house" may draw a blank over the pronunciation of "houses."

    I would never say, "Would you have come had you known?" to a basic non-native speaker. I'd say, "If you did know, why you come?" etc. Often, communication is important, not whether correct grammar is being adhered to.

  • 1

    Brainiac

    I used to work with a woman who did this all the time with Japanese people who only had a basic English knowledge. She sounded like Mr Miyagi in the "Karate Kid" movies. It's almost as bad as those people who raise their voice to repeat something, as if they think that will help a person to understand them better.

    Bad grammar doesn't help someone understand what you are trying to tell them.

  • 1

    sillygirl

    I think it is sad. Yes, communication is important but no need to speak like an uneducated clod to a non-native speaker.

  • 14

    gaijinfo

    Yes, it is easier to understand. This is common sense, and is actually taught in CELTA courses when teaching beginners. Anybody who's ever taught beginners knows this is true.

    But I guess in an age of politically correct egalitarianism, where you MUST ALWAYS act as if everybody is equal in every way, even in their level of language, speaking in broken ENGLISH is forbidden.

    I, for one, I am grateful whenever a Japanese speaks to me in broken, simple Japanese, because it shows me that they genuinely want me to understand their message, and they are taking specific steps to make that happen.

  • -2

    BertieWooster

    I wonder why so many Americans I meet seem never to have heard of a past participle or an adverb.

    One teacher at a place I was working told me that, "It's wrote on the wall," and another admired my Japanese, telling me that I spoke Japanese "fluent." Both these "teachers" had good university qualifications.

    I think it's a kind of fashion.

    I don't got no idea why they does it.

  • 9

    sillygirl

    @gaijinfo - simple but NOT broken, please.

  • 4

    philly1

    Yes, it is easier to understand. This is common sense, and is actually taught in CELTA courses when teaching beginners. Anybody who's ever taught beginners knows this is true.

    Thank you, gaijinfo. Simplifying speech makes it clearer. Slowing down one's speech and enunciating clearly help facilitate understanding. Rapid speakers and mumblers add to the difficulty. No need to raise the volume, though.

    Some speakers (whatever the language) are at a very basic stage in their language learning. If they are adults, they need all the encouragement they can get. Kids seem to care less, but adults are more acutely aware of being incorrect.

    I appreciate someone who keeps it simple when I am running through the loops in my brain for the minimal vocabulary I have. Beer drink? gets me to yes please or to coffee drink if you don't mind. And please don't wakarinai me if I have inadvertently ordered a building instead of a beer. I'm doing my best.

    Anybody with a brain can recognize slip ups for what they are and be generous.

  • 4

    Serrano

    Heck, if native English speakers used grammatically correct English when speaking, they'd be soundin' weird.

  • 6

    oikawa

    Simplifying speech makes it clearer. Slowing down one's speech and enunciating clearly help facilitate understanding.

    That's not being broken or grammatically incorrect though. Simplifying speech and speaking pigeon English are completely different things.

    This is common sense, and is actually taught in CELTA courses when teaching beginners.

    I don't believe this. I can not imagine it's on the curriculum of a respected English teaching course to speak incorrect English at any stage. It wasn't on mine. It might have been the personal opinion of your trainer but that's not the same, and in my opinion, terrible teaching.

  • 2

    Fugacis

    Do they think that somehow broken English is easier to understand?

    In the case of relaying relatively simple information quickly and effectively where a language barrier exists, yes it is. While more complex aspects of English grammar have their uses and shouldn't be thought irrelevant or dispensable, they can be superfluous to a simple imperative message.

    It just depends what level we're talking at.

  • 3

    cleo

    This is common sense, and is actually taught in CELTA courses when teaching beginners.

    On the English-teaching course I took they emphasised that you should never use ungrammatical English in order to make things 'simpler', because that is what the students will learn, and unlearning stuff is a lot less simple than learning the right stuff in the first place.

    A simple Beer? with the appropriate intonation and gesture is a lot better than Beer drink? and still lets you wet your whistle. (If you're talking Japanese, as I imagine from the wakaranai plea, then biiru nomu? is what native speakers ask each other in a casual setting, not broken at all.)

  • 7

    Frungy

    gaijinfoApr. 14, 2013 - 08:19AM JST Yes, it is easier to understand. This is common sense, and is actually taught in CELTA courses when teaching beginners. Anybody who's ever taught beginners knows this is true.

    With all due respect Gaijinfo I believe you may have been misinformed about the CELTA course. They do teach that you should speak slowly and clearly. They do teach that you should avoid complex grammar. They do not teach that a teacher of English should provide an incorrect grammar model by using broken or grammatically incorrect English.

    I've seen some so-called English teachers using this "broken English" method, and it is both insulting and bad teaching practice.

  • 2

    blendover

    If there is miscommunication in a real setting, then it is natural to simplify and the person doing that will take guesses at which words or phrases the other party knows or doesn't. Of course, they will probably be wrong some of the time or even misjudge a situation completely and simplify when it's not necessary. I imagine that might be irritating to the other party at times

    On the English teaching side, as above, use of ungramatical or unnatural expressions is counterproductive in the long run. Personally, I think that teaching English entirely in English, whilst possible, is not the most efficient method. Sparing use of the mother tongue as a disambiguator can sometimes save weeks of miscomprehension. Overuse of the mother tongue is also problematic however.

  • 3

    Saiaku

    Not just english, many of us do this in our own native language when we speak with people who are not native, like immigrants. It just makes it easier for everyone to understand, but I guess the core is that we don't want to spend time explaining words to them.

  • 3

    Tawnchan

    I am not speaking in "broken English", but rather speaking English through Japanese grammar. In my usual daily routine here in Japan, my stress is to get my point across and to be understood as I am not in the business of teaching English to every Japanese I come across.

    Language is a tool in which the main purpose for that tool is expression and communication.

    Would you get mad if I used a flat head screwdriver to unscrew a philips screw if I had no philips screwdriver?

    If I had to speak English in Katakana form, I will.

  • 1

    kimuzukashiiiii

    The other side of this (which I have experienced) is being spoken to in completely normal Japanese by someone, and then have them interject the ONE (or two) English words they know into the conversation, to either make them look educated or to "help" me, despite the fact I am already following and engaging in the conversation.

    If I can follow the conversation in Japanese, and they are putting in one or two very simple English terms (for example I ask for directions, they explain it all in Japanese but instead of saying hidari they say "lefto") then dont they think I already know what "lefto" is, in Japanese?

    Im sure it must work the other way too.. they try to learn the language, try to speak the language, and then someone starts replying VERY LOUDLY and VERY SLOWLY to them, using only vocabulary and elaborate gestures, it gets kind of insulting, dontya think? They are learning another language, not deaf or stupid. I know I find it slightly insulting when it happens to me...

  • 0

    YongYang

    It's just an instinct to try and be helpful. Some people from every different speaking peoples do the same. It's just how some see a way of being helpful. As many don't expect other peoples to speak their language they 'try' and 'help'.

  • 5

    LFRAgain

    TESOL training does not encourage the use of broken English in order to get a point across. It encourages simplicity, yes, but not caveman English. It does no one any good to reinforce bad grammatical habits from the beginning, in the middle, and through to the end.

    I, for one, don't use broken English with my junior high students because their tests don't give "Nice try" points for being wrong. Dropped articles and tenses will spell the end of a student's academic aspirations in Japan -- at least as far as their English studies are concerned.

    Perhaps in the course of day-to-day interactions with the locals, as Tawnchan points out above, achieving commmunication is more important than reinfocing proper grammar usuage.

    But even then, there's the danger of pulling a Chris Tucker from the film 'Rush Hour' when he speaks to Jackie Chan's character for the first time by slowing his English down to a patronizing speed and raises the volume of his voice, as if lack of fluency in a language also equals some sort of hearing impairment. An attempt to communicate becomes an inadverdent demonstration of how to insult someone.

    IMHO, breaking up complex sentence structures into ones that are less so, and avoiding more difficult vocabularly will go further with most people that dumbing down the language to the equivalent of, "Fire bad! Me no like fire."

  • 5

    Maria

    In the streets, shops and bars, people can talk down as much as they want., even though it's annoying to hear.

    In a professional relationship - be it in the classroom, in a private lesson, or even when spending time with students outside of lesson time, it's simply wrong, and counter-productive.

    It's the bad apples that affect the others, not the other way around, after all, innit...

  • 1

    noumen.arete

    I have some japanese friends who speak a little bit of spanish but no english, I regularly use verbs in present tense, I even use excessively "if-then" so I can explain myself better. It is no different in english, or any other language.

    Maybe the question should be, for example "Do japanese get a better understanding when listening to a native english speaker, using broken or grammatically incorrect english?"

  • 3

    philly1

    A simple Beer? with the appropriate intonation and gesture is a lot better than Beer drink? and still lets you wet your whistle. (If you're talking Japanese, as I imagine from the wakaranai plea, then biiru nomu? is what native speakers ask each other in a casual setting, not broken at all.)

    For non-Japanese speakers who have acquired their Japanese elsewhere (possibly at some expense) and are keen to practise and communicate, they will have no clue as to what "native speakers" ask in any setting. Proper intonation and gestures are even less likely to be part of their awareness.

    I used the "simple beer" example because a colleague was once refused service because she had ordered a building. The server's attitude was that she should learn to speak properly if she wanted something. Sanks a rot. But that kind of condescension doesn't exactly serve either side, does it?

  • 2

    BertieWooster

    Surely grammatical use depends on the context, doesn't it?

    If communication is the purpose, as long as it gets across, it's fine, isn't it? In that case, grammar don't matter too much.

    It is one literary technique and can be used for humour or as a put down.

    If a person is up for a test - especially in Japan, he or she had better make sure they use the grammar as it appears in the text books they used.

    If an English teacher is talking with his students, he should simplify his English to the level that it can be understood and not use "dodgy grammar."

    And if said English teacher is talking in front of his boss, it wouldn't be a good idea for him to use bad grammar, because his boss might worry about his students picking it up and complaining, or quitting the school (his biggest worry).

  • 4

    Xeno23

    Poor grammar doesn't help anyone. Most people tend to speak too quickly and slur their words together; it's common in any spoken language.

    I've found speaking grammatically, but slightly slower with proper enunciation, and pausing at natural break points in sentences provides better results.

    For example: "Yesterday - we went - to the park". It's almost like inserting commas. Parisian French speak in clips of three words; it's distinctive to Paris - or was some time ago; maybe not anymore.

    I even do this when initially speaking Japanese to a Japanese person who doesn't know I can do so - until they adjust their expectation; then I go all pera-pera on them.

  • 3

    NZ2011

    Unfortunately until the English learning style changes in Japan there isn't much point trying to speak "native" english to many people. However, to be fair, even with other English speaking friends from around the world we can have misunderstandings time to time with different slang, accents, cadence and so on.

    I think as long as your being understood and are trying to improve then that's as much as you can ask anyone learning a new language.

    If i had any say, which I don't of course.. (same goes for my approach to learning Japanese)

    1, Katakana for English words should be banned during learning, if its English use English. (for me same goes for Japanese learners, learn Hiragana and Katakana first, it only takes a few weeks, after that don't use Romaji, and start putting in the Kanji for commonly used words as soon as possible)

    2, Change the focus from learning a bunch of preset phrases, that are outdated and odd and particular vocabulary sheets and focus on actual communication, written but especially spoken.

    Of course though, I slow down and try not to use unnecessarily complicated words, and adjust for other people's level, without acting like they are a moron, I would hope that others would do the same for me if I was learning too.

  • -3

    interuni321

    Speaking pigeon English is an extreme form of simplifying English and perfectly legitimate when trying to communicate with someone who has or may have a very low grasp of English. By cutting out unnecessary words and removing tenses and maybe plurals it makes the basic content of the words far easy to understand. It may sound patronising if the listener has a far high level of English or if 3rd parties with good English are listening, but its perfectly reasonable to do this. When teaching English its a slightly different matter as immediate communication may not always be what is being taught at a particular moment, but when communication is the most important thing pigeon English is often perfectly reasonable.

  • 1

    BertieWooster

    interuni321,

    Was the "pigeon English" a joke?

    Pidgin:

    A grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language. Pidgins have a limited vocabulary, some elements of which are taken from local languages, and are not native languages, but arise out of language contact between speakers of other languages.

    ORIGIN late 19th cent.: Chinese alteration of English "business."

  • 9

    Balefire

    At the risk of being labeled pedantic, I'd like to point out that it's "pidgin", not "pigeon" English.

    Simple, carefully pronounced and enunciated, grammatically correct English is better in the long run, in my opinion and based on my experience.

    Speaking more slowly is sometimes advisable, but one needs to be careful about not ruining the intonation by slowing down to a monotone that will be less, not more, understandable.

    It may require more patience, but it's ultimately to the benefit of both sides of the conversation.

  • 2

    cleo

    philly1 - if the native speaker offering the drink uses intonation that obviously indicates a question, and tips an air-glass of beer in front of his own face, I think it's pretty understandable wherever the non-native speaker is coming from, especially in the context of a bar/restaurant situation.

    Your colleague (not a native speaker of Japanese, I take it? So the onus to help communication along is on the shoulders of the person serving, not the thirsty one.) who ordered a building seems to have come up against a pig-headed moron - great way to serve the customer, n'est pas? Not so much condescension as meaningless one-upmanship, especially if he ended up doing himself out of a spot of custom.

  • 2

    tmarie

    Whoever suggested that CELTA supports such things needs to redo the course. No, it doesn't. It's patronizing and annoying. I hate when the locals speak to me in horrific Japanese so don't do the same back. I'm not stupid, just not a native speaker.

  • -1

    smithinjapan

    Sorry, I've tried using both completely normal English and a bit of dummied-down, broken English with people, and the fact of the matter is the former does NOT work with people who are less than fluent. That said, I don't use things that are grammatically incorrect, I just slow down the pace and use simple vocabulary. I have a few friends who ARE fluent and with them I don't dummy-down at all, but speak as though I would to a fellow native English speaker.

    But go ahead and try that with an introductory level ESL student or person interested in English and watch them flee and stop studying out of fear/embarrassment.

  • 2

    LiveInTokyo

    As if only English speakers do it. In many cases you`ll find that the non-native speaker who speaks grammatically incorrect English is simply being copied by the native speaker who thinks it is helpful by copying them.

    And if you look at imbedded questions like, "Do you know if that shop is open till late?", for example, they often confuse the non-native speaker. Therefore by breaking the sentence down it can be helpful. Plus if I`m on holiday the last thing I want to do is spend all my time on giving every non-native an English lesson.

  • -2

    cramp

    oh yes, i do that a lot..i often wondered if it was normal

    i tend to emulate their lingo and sorta emphasize the words and yeah, hellish grammar...they seem to get it after that, lol

  • 3

    Moondog

    Folks, the question was about native English speakers using broken English with non-native speakers. Saying "I look 7-11. You know?" might be okay with a random person on the corner if you don't know a bit of Japanese and it gets across the point that you're looking for a 7-11.

    On the other hand, if an English teacher says something like that to a student, then he/she should be sent packing. I recall when I was in Japan I often heard (supposed) English teachers dropping pronouns and avoiding the present progressive tense. "Instead of "I'm going to see a good movie tomorrow" they would say "I will see movie tomorrow. It's good movie."

    Splitting the sentence into two is okay but only as long as correct grammar is preserved: "Im going to see a movie tomorrow. It's a good movie."

    As someone above mentioned, if they hear it wrong, they will learn it wrong and unlearning is harder than learning.

  • 4

    mrkobayashi

    Moondog, you mean dropping articles, not pronouns. In addition, "I'm watching a movie" would be present progressive. "I'm going to" is future tense.

  • 0

    Goals0

    Oops! Your comment was fine.

  • 1

    cwhite

    too many connecting words just makes it confusing, keep it simple.

  • 0

    lucabrasi

    too many connecting words just makes it confusing, keep it simple.

    You. Speak. Good. Truth.

  • 2

    Elbuda Mexicano

    Guess what gaijin folk, the JAPANESE dumb down their language, so we NON Japanese can understand their language too! This happens in all languages! Surprise??

  • 1

    jonobugs

    I try never to use bad grammar when speaking to someone in English. Of course, being human, I'm sure that I'm not perfect all the time.

    I think the only time that I don't speak properly is when I'm actually trying to speak in Japanese. More than often, my Japanese is incorrect and I will use English, but only say the word that I don't know in Japanese. I'm amazed how how often many Japanese people will not understand me when I try and use Japanese, but if I use katakana English speak, they will understand me. When I ask them what the Japanese was, they will sometimes say that the Japanese I used was correct, but they just didn't understand ...

  • 1

    fanofjapan2005

    As a retired ancient journalism/English major, I "teach" on a website called "Lang-8" -- a foreign language site with probably a hundred-thousand people from all over the world learning each other's languages. Its URL is "Lang-8.com." Some of you might find it amazing, fun, and rewarding. Surely, others here on JT have explored this site.

    While teaching via computer, I always try to use "perfect" English. Often, I throw in some slang, street talk, idioms galore, etc., but I always try to explain them. The present and former Japanese Eigo-learners learned strict, totally proper English in their schools, probably from old-school, my-way-or-the-highway-type native-Nihonjin teachers. On Lang-8, the learners are discovering, with the help of us native-English speakers/writers, that there's quite a gray area between "prescriptive" English (by the book) and "descriptive" English " (how we REALLY write and speak TODAY).

    Egg-zample: They avoid English contractions like the plague. "It is a beautiful day," they write. I respond with, "Yes, you wrote it perfectly, but you will always be labeled a foreigner if you don't use any contractions at all. We use them ALL the time, especially when speaking but also in writing." They have sort of acquired the feeling (from "school daze") that "contraction-speak/write" is sinfully casual, way too informal, other-side-of-the-track lingo. Noooo!

    Another example: I point out to my Lang-8 "students" that President Obama -- and most any prior president -- uses/has used wanna-gonna-hafta-gotta when speaking informally with the press or to the nation. However, when reading his teleprompter, say, for the State of the Union address, it's contraction-less, as it should be.

    There's a time and a place for every communication style.

  • 4

    Nessie

    I wonder why so many Americans I meet seem never to have heard of a past participle or an adverb.

    Because dem lot ovaar dere don't know nuffin' 'bout propaar speakin' like, bruv, innit.

  • 0

    Jerome_from_Utah

    Native "English" or "American" speakers? I recall a comment that England and America are joined by an ocean but divided by a language. England, America, Japan, and Korea all have distinctive dialects and idioms that make it possible to determine the speaker's origin but also confuse communication. Tempo varies by locale, too, as my mother found out when she moved to Virginia after growing up in New York City. "How do you Yankees talk so fast?" She also found out that you can carry something in a "poke" but the word "bag" carries some extra baggage down south. "Konichiwa" ends earlier in Kyushu than on the Kanto Plains and I recall learning the hard way that the time of "Dinner" is different on the east coast (around 6PM) than in Illinois. (We call that "Lunch" back east.) That one cost me some money.

  • 4

    cleo

    People seem to be confusing broken, ungrammatical English with simple English. If you want to ask "Do you know if that shop is open till late?" and you're speaking to someone you think is unlikely to understand and embedded question, you could simplify it to Is that shop open till late? or even break it down further to That shop - is it open late?

    The parents of a friend of mine, who fled to England from Germany just before the second world war and neither of whom spoke much English when they arrived, went on to become fluent speakers. When we first married Mr cleo's English wasn't all that great, but he said he found them very easy to understand because they would say the same thing two or three times, in different ways, so that if he didn't catch it first time round, he had another chance. When speaking directly to him they spoke simply and sometimes slowly, but never condescendingly or in broken English. As a non-fluent speaker of English, he said he found that a great help.

  • 1

    Eppee

    I never lived or studied in an English speaking country. I mostly learn by watching, reading medias, talking with people, etc. Please, please "native English speakers", do not use any "broken or grammatically incorrect English", it is extremely irritating and frustrating ! Exchanging with you is how we learn and progress !

  • 3

    Yuko Suzuki

    I'm one of English learners in Japan. I was sad and upset to read this article. At least, I want to learn grammatically correct English. My private English teacher is from Kazakhstan. Even though her mother tongue isn't English, she speaks English fluently and has lived in some foreign countries communicating in English. She might be also English learners, but I think that's why she can teach English to beginners better than English speakers who don't know how to teach their mother tongue.

  • 0

    madmel

    lol Eppee....with some non English speakers we cannot or we simply give up as we are the ones who get frustrated when we cannot get a point across. Not very polite I will agree but sometimes you only have so much time to get through to someone. Our biggest fault is speed of speech that has lots of idioms and slang. We have many Japanese living here near Banff AB Canada and I am always reminding my staff that that blank stare you get is not stupidity....its their brain straining to figure out what the heck you just said. Conversely I can understand someones broken English better than anyone at my shop.... Have any Japanese people on this thread ever visited Newfoundland Canada? If so HOW did you get by? I cannot even understand half the English spoken out there.

  • 0

    fanofjapan2005

    For some (strange) reason, the actual article is not showing up on MY monitor; just the lengthy headline and all the replies/comments. What gives?

    • Moderator

      There is no article. It is just a question for readers to answer.

  • 2

    cleo

    fan, there is no article, just the question.

  • 0

    whiskeysour

    It's easy just fire the incompetent teachers, either they are lazy to review the lesson plan or an idiotic instructor. First, teach examples of formal English and informal.

  • 1

    whiskeysour

    Why do some native English speakers use broken or grammatically incorrect English, when trying to communicate with someone who isn't a native English speaker

    If you teach bad grammar your students will always memorize it and recite the terrible grammar !!!!

  • 1

    madmel

    That is actually the main problem with ESL training...they worry WAY to much about grammar in the beginning when the skill of pronouncing words clearly so an English only speaker understands the person is far more useful. The main point is communication. Grammar does not need to be correct to communicate but clarity is paramount. I went into a Chinese restaurant and the whole time I was dealing with the waiter I had no problem talking with her heavy accent as I have an ear for it...my Mother did not understand one word the waitress spoke..yet her grammar was perfect. This happens A LOT ...

  • 1

    Get Real

    Well said, @Yuko Suzuki. The unfortunate truth is that too many native English speakers have atrocious grammar and spelling. This is further compounded by monolinguals, who cannot empathize with language learners, or know to simply speak more clearly and slowly.

    In not using the proper grammar, the speaker unwittingly deprives the Japanese listener of the mortar of meaning they so desperately seek to understand their counterpart.

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