What’s that, you say? Does the English language really hold power?

I came across an article in the FT weekend magazine by Simon Kuper today that got me thinking again about language and the power it carries. The writer Angela Carter wrote that ‘language is power’, and Kuper argues the same. However his argument is based around English, saying that Christine Lagarde (French finance minister) has such a fantastic command of English and for this reason, everyone ‘instinctively turned to her to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF’. I’m not sure if I agree. Lagarde’s English has developed to such strength over 25 years in the US – that’s a long time to then gain the title of an excellent English communicator.

‘What’s that, you say?’ Try saying that to non-native speakers and you’ll receive a ‘pardon?’ – exactly the same word you’re trying to express but in a rather convoluted manner. And perhaps that’s where my gripe lies with Kuper. He argues that if one doesn’t speak perfect English, he or she can still triumph but there is a limit to where ‘Globish’ – ‘the simplified idiom-free version of English with a small vocabulary’ – can take you.

I’ve been through that awkward experience of being a native English speaker amongst those of continental Europe origins and found myself largely misunderstood or indeed laughed at at times when I was telling the most sober tales. At whilst it’s fair to stay I had a headstart in developing my English language nuances, I actually felt at a disadvantage to those fluent in French, Dutch, Spanish (and!) or Italian. They could fluidly converse with one another, whilst I was stuck in the corner trying to explain the meaning of the word ‘dodgy’.

So where does the power ultimately lie? With the perfect English speaker (who isn’t necessarily a native speaker, as Lagarde exemplifies) who might not find themselves feeling comfortable amongst non-native ‘Globish’ speakers? When I lived in Germany I often went through phases where I felt like I had the IQ of a child – I couldn’t express myself exactly how I wanted to. In the early stages I hadn’t quite developed the nuances of the language, the small word places, the right intonation of my voice, that could fully convey the meaning of what I truly wanted to say. Or does the power indeed lie with the non-perfect English speaker, who can not only communicate with the perfect speaker, but can also communicate with his fellow ‘Globish’ speakers feeling perfectly comfortable that they are both on a level (albeit lower according to Kuper) playing ground?

3 thoughts on “What’s that, you say? Does the English language really hold power?

  1. What an interesting post! I’m not really sure that Globish exists. In my experience a German speaking his Germanic sort of English to an Italian using an Italianate form of English is no more likely to communicate effectively than you as a native speaker.

  2. Thank you for the kind words.

    I agree, I think if anything being a native speaker can be a hindrance as idiom and intonation often go amiss with non-natives!

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