The case for Slow EnglishSM, and especially for native speakers
How many people speak English worldwide?
Half of the world?
I don’t mean full competence by any means.
Rather I’m talking about the ability to conduct a simple practical conversation; to get and give simple directions, and to share simple information about with others.
The current estimate of half-way competence in English is approximately 13%
So the vast majority of the world might speak multiple local languages, but cannot speak the one truly international language of English.
In other words, most people cannot participate in the one language with the potential to be global.
Allow me to back up.
As a native speaker it’s easy to come across as arrogant, when we discuss the growing dominance of English. In my own case I’m a native speaker from New Zealand, but five years each in the States, Australia, England, and now Germany.
Certainly there are more native speakers of Chinese and Spanish.
Even Hindi and Arabic come close to mother-tongue dominance over English.
But English is far more distributed amongst many more countries and cultures than any other language. China has far more native speakers, but just 10% non-native speakers.
On the contrary native speakers of English number just one quarter of the total number.2
Furthermore English’s worldwide presence amongst the powerful – the leaders, managers, opinon-makers, scientists and journalists is far higher. In fact the network effect means that by nearly every measurement English is way ahead, and with an ever increasing dominance.
In short English has won the battle for global dominance.
Deal with it.
Now before any reader gets too complacent, the picture is actually much more nuanced.
This trend will disadvantage the monolingual, and even worse the monocultural, English speaker. Without lived experience of this more complex world they risk bringing an unexamined much simpler world-view to communication that is now necessarily far more complex.
More success will accrue to those more comfortable in this new global context.
We can read about global complexity and multilinguality, but imagine living it in one’s own mind.
Imagine a life in which one must decide moment to moment which language to think in!
That’s the complexity for the majority of the world.3
But not for those still most dominant in world power structures.
Any bilingual understands this point intuitively.
But for me it was a total shock.
I had never left NZ till I was twenty years old, but had then lived in four other countries (Australia, the United States, and England) till I was forty-one. I considered myself an international sophisticate.
However the shock of mastering German, while living in Berlin, finally forced me out of my monolingual complacence.
I understood that the cultural appurtenances (think Oktoberfest, Lederhosen, and the Berlin Wall) were not minor eccentricities cloaking a deep commonality. On the contrary a different linguistic/cultural worldview is indeed a profoundly different Weltanschauung.
So the old assumptions of how to get along with one’s neighbour are out, never to be replaced.
As many multinationals now understand, the highly competent non-native speaker simply communicates more effectively. They have gone through the stages of competence in English in a conscious way, and so can now adjust more intuitively to the communicative needs of their counterpart.
And so we come to the case for Slow EnglishSM.
Without Slow English we will simply never have the necessary global communication platform, with one reliable international language, to address current highly complex global problems.
The necessary global diversity of voices aren’t joining this emerging global conversation.
We native speakers are not hearing enough fast enough from sufficient perspectives.
I discovered Slow English in Hungary in May of 2014.
There I heard the most beautiful English of my life.
Certainly its vocabulary was not the most extensive, nor the pronunciation the finest, and undoubtedly its grammar needed constant polishing.
But this Slow English was highly sensitive and highly effective to the needs of the conversation.
There in Budapest I was at the first Integral European conference with over 80% non-native speakers of English. We had come together to bring ever more perspectives into one over-arching framework, and of course in real-time during communication.
One essential perspective is to notice and respond to our speaking partner’s level of English.
Can we carefully adjust to our perception of the other’s changing understanding?
In short, can we learn to adjust to the linguistic and communicative competence in English of our partner?
This is the key question at the heart of Slow English.
It sounds easy but can be very challenging in practice.
This summer I attended an event in Germany with over a thousand participants, mostly from Germany.
Three Americans spoke in English to the audience, all highly-respected world-class communicators over many years. First came Robert Masters, whose carefully succinct answers were impressive.
He didn’t overload, but he still spoke too fast for too many.
Second came the world-renowned Deepak Chopra, whose speed and scientific terminology even challenged the translator, for those who were listening by headset. ‘Orifice’ anyone?
Finally came Tami Simon, the founder of SoundsTrue, whose colleagues speak of her measured cadence.
Many told me later how disconnected they felt from the first two, and just how impacted they were by Tami’s slow simple words.
So native speakers need to practice this.
And also many non-native speakers!
We all need to practice conscious adjustment of tempo, complexity and articulation according to the needs of the moment.
This sensitive attention counts a lot with non-native speakers.
Then we can be surprised how many more people are ready to speak with us.
Yes we can easily do it with small children, but it can also happen in a very respectful way with adults.
Let us consider the profound ignorance, or even arrogance, of the native speaker of English who refuses to tailor their English to the ear of an immigrant.
An artificially adjusted accent, more in the middle of the Bell curve of accents, does not take away the identity of a guy from Brooklyn, Glasgow or a hundred other places!
In Germany we call it Hochdeutsch (High German), and it’s standard practise for the Swiss or someone from Stuttgart. Thank heavens for someone like me!
A non-native listener has probably struggled for many years with English.
But too many are still not ready to make a little effort in this regard.
I suggest this is neither reasonable nor sufficient in a world riven by misunderstandings at all levels.
We can choose.
Learn the ways of Slow English.
Learn to adjust our English to talk to a complex world.
Or continue to reap the wrath of the current clash of languages, cultures, and civilisations.