It is interesting for me, an American, to listen to Irish-English, Welsh-English, Scottish-English, Australian-English, or South African-English speakers, among others. They all bring different and unique flavors to the English Language.
If one can use a Porterhouse steak as a metaphor, the steak will taste different depending on the spices you use on it, how long it is cooked, or what method you use to cook it. In every case it is still a steak (unless you severely overcook it–then it is simply shoe leather), but one cook’s version of how that steak will taste will be different from another cook.
Language is the same way, whether you are talking about different accents, vocabulary, popular speech, or social class. And this can apply to many languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian, etc. And it most certainly applied to English. Thirty-seven percent (37%) of the world’s population uses English as their L1 or native language. So you can see from just that statistic alone the possibility of variances in accents and common lexicon from one English-speaking country to another might be significant. As it turns out, that is a gross understatement.
Within a single country and often within just a few kilometers, differences in the common language can be heard. Even in a relatively cohesive culture–and most cultures fit that description now, due to television and the internet–differences in language are often pronounced. General lexicon, street language, slang, and idiomatic expressions will vary within a specific culture, like that of the United States. Although many aspects of language manifest variants, it is accent (pronunciation) and differences attributed to social class that are the most easily recognizable. In New Jersey and New York alone a dozen or more distinct accents can be heard. These differences can be subtle, but are nonetheless discernible. With regard to class, one only needs to listen to the language and vocabulary levels used in the conversations that take place in the lobby of the Kennedy Center for the Performing arts versus a neighborhood bar in Queens. Quality of education not only in foreign languages, but even in one’s native language, is the crux of the matter.
When accents become significant and unique, such as Irish English versus “the Queen’s English,” it is not uncommon for the language to be so different that one English-speaker can have a difficult time understanding another. An American friend of mine who teaches English recently traveled to Ireland as a tourist. In parts of Ireland, in fact even in Dublin, she had a difficult time understanding the language. The combination of accent and slang made Irish English nearly a foreign language to her. Despite the fact that she is an American and a native speaker of American English, she could not understand much of what was coming from the mouths of people she would meet. And just as in the United States, she encountered differences in the language from the west coast of Ireland to the east coast–many times even from county to county.
In 1993, on my first trip to Russia, I met a woman in Moscow at a social function who was an English teacher in a middle school. I was unable to understand fully 70% of what was coming from her mouth when she was speaking “English” to me. On that same trip, while still in Moscow, I had a meeting with a manager with British Airways. Right from our introduction, I felt at ease. Here was a true Brit, someone I could understand and relate to. I asked him if what part of England he was from, fully expecting him to say Oxford, Westminster, or the like–certainly somewhere high-class and genteel. He chuckled and handed me his card. His name was Vladimir Borisovich Sokolov, and he was not only Russian by birth, but had learned his English at a special school in Russia. His English-English was perfect. But he was trained to be perfect in the language. His former role, when Russia was part of the USSR, was that of an operative for the KGB. But be that as it may, the lesson to me was that it greatly matters who you learn a language from. If your English language teacher is barely intelligible to an Englishman or American, your pronunciation of the language will most likely be such that you will not be readily understood by either.
Just as in real estate–where the secret is location, location, location–whether you are learning English, Italian, or Tagalog, the secret to your success with the language is going to depend on who you select to teach you, especially with pronunciation, grammar, and social class. Most other parts of a language can be learned from books, tapes, videos, etc. But if you don’t have a teacher who speaks the classic form of the language, and clearly, you will find that your results will be mediocre at best.
What comes out of your mouth when speaking either your native tongue or a foreign language will determine to an often great degree how much you are taken seriously, and even respected. If you are meeting with friends for pizza and beer at your local pub, as long as they can decipher the bulk of what you are saying (the percentage of which will likely diminish with each additional beer you consume), you will be treated as an equal, a compadre, a paesano.
But if you are the head of a company, a leader in your profession, or a diplomat in foreign service, if your English was learned from a barely articulate instructor, or self-taught via the internet or learn-at-home DVD’s, you will probably not be taken as seriously as you would if your English was clearly intelligible and sophisticated.
If the secret in real estate is location, location, location, then the secret to learning a foreign language and being able to reproduce it at a high level of fluency and pronunciation is teacher, teacher, teacher.
If I invite you to my home for a steak dinner, I want that steak to be tender, cooked to perfection, and seasoned in a subtle manner so as to not mask its quality, flavor, and classic appeal. That steak will determine to a large degree how well you remember the entire evening at my home. Furthermore, it will play a large part in whether you willingly come back to my home for dinner again, if invited, or instead insist on meeting me at a restaurant.
So, as the Knight Templar and keeper of the Holy Grail cautioned, “Choose wisely.”