I had dinner with a friend at our local Thai yesterday evening. We are regulars there.
‘You wan Jim Tonk?’ asked the owner, who knows me of old.
‘OK. You wonk eye?’
‘Yes please, and a slice of lemon.’
When it came to paying the bill - ‘ping namba, preece’ - I had to explain to the owner that I had pressed the ‘enter’ button on the portable credit-card contraption twice, and feared I might have paid double.
‘Twice. Two times. Same button, two times.’
‘OK.’ He made some adjustments to the machine and passed it back to me. ‘Chai gheng.’
How long have you bloody lived here, I thought. This restaurant of yours has been here a good fifteen years and you even longer, and you still sound like one of the Flowerpot Men. Well, honestly. People ought to make more effort.
After thirty years of listening to non-native learners of English I can understand almost anybody from anywhere, but people who don’t do my job find it very irritating to have to decode this sort of thing. Think of the frustration involved in talking to a call centre in Mumbai. You don't want to be rude or racist, but that tense, quick-fire delivery can be very hard to follow. Two summers ago I had a Vietnamese boy in one of my classes. He was friendly, cheerful, polite and cute. I do like it when a wiry lad’s T-shirt parts company with his jeans to reveal a tanned, turned midriff and the waist band of his underpants, so he was nice to have around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand a word he said. After twenty-eight years on the job, I’d finally met a boy whose pronunciation defeated me. If I had problems following what Ken said, imagine how his Arabic speaking classmates reacted.
Well, they behaved abominably. The day came for Ken to make a presentation and for his sake I was not looking forward to this. I don’t ordinarily like Powerpoint presentations, but at least in this instance the professionalism of Ken’s slides allowed me to make some nice comments on the feedback form when the rest were all criticism. The formulaic presentation-speak I had drummed into everyone came out reasonably intelligibly. Ken greeted his public:
‘Go half a noon, Effie Baddie’
Then he outlined his presentation:
‘I defy my playstation in Şri Par. In farce par, I’m disco a bow internet. In sicken par…’
By now the audience was getting a little restive and two young Saudi men were snickering, but as they were across the room from me, I couldn’t stop them without halting Ken’s presentation. He went on:
‘Sir par is concloot, my ping-yon for solfe off da prom.’*
The two Saudis by now were helpless, shoulders shaking in silent mirth, tears rolling down their faces. I could have killed them, but Ken ploughed gamely on. He reached the end, acknowledged the ritual applause, and sat down looking very dispirited. Poor kid, I could have hugged him, and not just because he was cute: he was hurt, and I decided to be pretty tough on the feedback forms of the two Saudi lads. I also had to be tough on Ken, though. If your pronunciation is lousy, you really have to work on the problem outside class time. Sorry, mate. Nice slides, nice abs, sexy underpants, can’t make head nor tail of anything you say.
If nobody had problems with English I would soon be out of a job, so I’m not complaining. I love the inventive things people manage to do with languages not their own and if I laugh, I don’t do so out of cruelty. There was a Korean restaurant just off Syntagma Square in Athens where a colleague, Ann, and I frequently had lunch in the early nineties. The manager was a very generous Korean who spoke to us in a kind of nonce English, odds and sods remembered from schooldays and strung together for the occasion. He’d pass by our table and deposit freebies, saying:
‘You drinka Chy-niece tea. Velly good-nice’
‘You eata Kimchi sarrad. Velly good-nice.’
I knew not to take it amiss when I went into the restaurant without Ann for the first time, and he said:
‘Oooooohhhhhh! Whear your fellow woman???’
* 'The third part is a conclusion, my opinion for solving the problem.'