Native English Speakers Have Problems

The BBC is one of the world’s most respected news services. So naturally I was interested in a BBC article called “Native English Speakers Are the World’s Worst Communicators.”

The article points out that people who grew up speaking English sometimes forget that non-native speakers may have trouble understanding them. Click here to read it:

I thought I would learn something new about some hidden minefields in the English language. But the article was disappointing. It pointed out communication habits that (in my opinion) might happen in any language.

Native English speakers sometimes talk too fast, and they make jokes and cultural references that people from other countries may not understand. Those are valid complaints – I’ve seen it happen myself. But are we the only people in the world who do this? I doubt it.

There was one point – right at the beginning – that I thought was valuable. English words often have two contradictory meanings. The article tells a story about a native English speaker who sent an important business message to a person who was still learning English.

The message included an unfamiliar word. The recipient looked it up and found two contradictory meanings – and chose the wrong one. As a result of the confusion, the business lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I wonder if you have the same question I did: What – for heaven’s sake – was the word? The article didn’t reveal it. The author said it’s specific to a particular industry, someone might figure it out, and the company would be embarrassed.

I call that…bad writing. The article didn’t have a single example of a confusing word that native speakers should use carefully. That’s not helpful.

I (ahem!) am going to provide two examples.

1. Flammable and inflammable. You probably know that they mean the same thing: able to burn (flammable/inflammable materials, for example). But “in” often means “not”: insecure, indefinite, incapable. Someone who doesn’t know English well might think that inflammable means “fireproof.”
I would tell business writers never to use the word inflammable. Why open the door to confusion? Flammable is a perfectly respectable word, and nobody is going to be confused.

2.  Buckle can mean “connect” (buckle a belt) and “collapse” (his knee buckled). The context will probably make it clear which meaning you want. A smart writer will double-check what they’ve written to make sure the meaning is clear. (In fact smart writers do that routinely, every time.)

I want to make one more point. Regular visitors to this blog know that I often rail against jargon. It’s pompous and confusing, and it hinders communication. Why use it?

Let’s go back to that story about the confusing “industry-specific” term. That is jargon doing its evil work.

Ye gods and little fishes. Why was that term used in the first place? Surely there was a simpler word (or group of words) that would have done the job.

A little common sense and brain power can go a long way. That’s what I wish the article had talked about.



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