Thoughts on clarity in speech from the perspective of non-English speakers.
19.02.2009 - 19.02.2009 4 °C
Last Thursday, I took a train from Sheffield to Birmingham to meet up with some co-workers for dinner. The train between the two cities, when running direct, is very quick, taking just a few minutes over an hour.
As the evening turns into night, though, the direct trains stop running, and you need to change trains in Derby to get back to Sheffield. I had originally planned to get back on the 21:03 back to Sheffield, which is the last direct train, but by quarter to nine we hadn't even received our main course, so it became obvious to me I was going to be taking a longer trip back.
A few after dinner drinks and I ended up catching the last train heading towards Sheffield, arriving into Derby at midnight. I got off the train and looked up at the train board, seeing what I knew but was hoping wasn't true. The train from Derby to Sheffield wasn't until 00:50, almost an hour from my arrival. All the shops in the station were closed, so I wandered out of the station and decided I would take advantage of my hour in Derby.
Firstly, I should point out that the city name is pronounced DAR-BEE, not DER-BEE. I don't know why, but it is. English very rarely makes much sense, as I was soon to learn... but let's not jump ahead.
Walking out of the station, I surveyed the scene. It didn't look very impressive. Outside the station I could see a few restaurants and pubs, but they were shut down for the night. The only thing open was the Bubble Spa, with a brightly lit store-front with all the windows covered. A spa with paper covered windows open at midnight. I guess there is always the possibility that someone has a late night nail emergency, but I figured it was more likely that the spa was featuring services above and beyond pedicures and exfoliations. I was looking for something different than a full-release happy ending though - treatments for my stress in a pint glass.
I wandered a few blocks away and found a pub that was open. I walked in. Like most pubs, it was long and thin. Like most pubs, the front room was filled with a few tables, some chairs and a bar with draught taps. Unlike most pubs, the back was filled with a dance floor, DJ booth and flashing lights.
"Is this a pub, or is it a dance club," I wondered. I looked around and decided that it didn't matter, as neither the traditional pub nor the dance floor had a single patron. I took a seat at the bar.
A bartender came out from the back room. "Hello there," he said, slight hint of an accent in his voice.
I gestured at the dance floor. "I guess all the dancers must be in the toilet," I joked. The bartender looked at me with a confused look on his face. "Never mind," I said. "I'll have a pint of Carling."
The bartender poured the beer, and with no other customers, we started chatting. He was from Poland, and he picked up pretty quickly that I wasn't from England. "Are you American," he asked.
"No, I am Canadian," I said.
"You must work for Bombardier," he exclaimed. I don't, but it was a good guess. Bombardier is a Canadian company that makes, among other things, trains, and they have a huge presence in Derby, their UK headquarters.
I told him that I didn't work for Bombardier, but rather am a consultant. The bartender told me how he wanted to move to Canada. "I'd really like to move to America, but I think it is easier for me to get to Canada," he said. "I have cousins who live in America."
"Where? I've worked a lot of places in America," I said. That spurred a whole conversation on cities in America. He wanted to get my impression on places he was thinking of moving. California, I told him, was nice but expensive. Florida is good if you can find work, and a lot cheaper than California. As someone in the service industry, Florida is certainly a good choice.
During our conversation, another bartender came out, this one a girl from Russia. She joined the conversation here and there, especially when we were discussing the weather in the UK (they both wondered why I would want to move to the UK, as it was cold and grey all the time) and terrorism threats in the USA (The Russian and I agreed that the USA was no safer nor no more dangerous than other places).
Apropos of nothing, the male bartender said, "you are easy to understand. It is hard to understand people from England when they speak."
"They swallow their words," said the female Russian bartender.
"Swallow their words?" I asked.
"Yeah, they don't finish what they say," the Polish bartender said. "They say half a word then stop. Americans and Canadians speak more clearly."
This wasn't, in fact, the first time I had heard this. A few people who have English as a second language have told me that same thing - I am easier to understand than English people. In some ways, I think it is because many people learn English by watching American TV shows, and thus become used to the American accent. Then again, sometimes I find myself struggling with an English accent, especially when they start speaking quickly.
Just then, another customer walked into the bar and took a seat. "Mate, can I 'ave a pint of Carling," he asked. I listened closely and noticed that in fact, they Russian was right. The last consonant tended to be clipped. It wasn't that the sound wasn't there, just that it was short and quick, like the last sound was spoken at double speed. Add to this the British tendency to abbreviate many words (veg for vegetable, goss for a gossip magazine, brill for brilliant, champy for Champagne), and I can understand how someone could think that the Brits are swallowing their words.
The Brit at the end of the bar continued to swallow his words, clipping the end sounds off them, and also slurring as his words as this obviously wasn't his first pub of the day. He talked at the bartenders, who looked at him confused. I looked at my watch and realized I had to go to catch my train.
"Good luck," I said to the Polish bartender, both wishing him luck in his future dream of living in America, and also in his current problem of understanding the swallowed words coming out of his latest customer.