Speaking International English
Living in Europe, I often overhear stilted English conversations between people of different nationalities, even when their native tongues are closely related. Of course this intercultural exchange happens all over the globe. As native English speakers, we are lucky to speak this international lingua franca. It often seems that everyone in Europe (certainly most educated young people) speak a passable English. However, it is essential for us native speakers (American, Australian, British, and Canadian) to realize that we cannot expect to be understood if we speak to even highly educated, non-native English speakers in the same way we talk to our friends and countrymen.
The first rule of International English is — of course — to speak in short, declarative sentences composed of simple words. Avoid contractions. Avoid non-standard usage of prepositions (e.g. “the information found under…”.) Avoid verb tenses besides past, present, future (e.g. “had been”); instead specify the time period that an action took/will take place. Do not use nouns as verbs and vice-versa. Of course you want to avoid any American idioms or jargon; the one exception to this is technology: English terms for most computer and electronics is understood universally. Finally, if someone does not understand you, try saying the same thing with different words.
Using the following international terms is almost guaranteed to make you understood regardless of the listener’s English ability. This is not a comprehensive list, if you can think of other terms that are nearly universal around Europe and/or the world, leave me a comment.
Toilet: although — as Americans — we find this term vulgar, it is universally understood around the world. Asking for the bathroom, restroom, ladies room etc. will often result in a confused stare outside American & British world. Also, when not marked by pictograms of a man & woman, you will see signs for “WC” (for water closet) or “OO.”
Bankomat: instead of ATM or teller machine
Mobile Telephone: instead of cell phone.
Taxi: instead of cab
Metro: instead of subway (which, when used, simply means pedestrian passageway under busy roads.)
Petrol: instead of gas (which refers to methane [CNG] or propane [LPG])
Automobile: instead of car
Non-stop: instead of 24-hour (in signage: “0–24”)
Holiday: instead of vacation
Return trip/ticket: instead of round-trip
Yes: instead of yeah, sure, or “why not?” etc.
No: instead of nah, nope, “probably not,” or “don’t want” etc.
Sorry: instead of “excuse me” or even pardon
Moment: (stressed on first syllable) instead of “just a second/minute”
When trying to pronounce words written in most European languages (and even pronouncing your own name or a particular English word which your non-native listener does not understand,) use the following rule of thumb:
A: always pronounced “ah” as in “father”
C: more often pronounced as “s” instead of “k” (or “ch” in Italian, “ts” in Slavic languages)
I: most often pronounced “ee” as in “ski”
J: pronounced “y” in Germanic languages, “h” in Spanish, but the French “zh” would probably be most universally understood.
O: usually pronounced as a long “o” as in “post”
R: often trilled
U: most often “oo”, not “uh”
W: pronounce as “v”
Also, each vowel sound it pronounced even for consecutive vowels such as “ae”, “ei”, etc. as well as final vowels in words (e.i. pronounce the “e” at the end of words; it does not modify the internal vowel.) Finally, umlauted or otherwise modified vowels are softer, and modified “c” (e.g. č) are pronounced as “ch”, modified “s” (e.g. ŝ) are pronounced “sh.” These are very general rules that in some languages are going to be totally wrong, so consult a language guide before you arrive.
Finally, you will find that many signs (especially on packaging and in museums) are multilingual; just remember that you speak English, so look for an oval containing the letters EN or GB, or the flag of the United Kingdom (you will rarely see an American flag.)
With these practicalities out of the way, it’s time again to reflect on the historical accident that left us with the privilege of having our language become the defacto language of interchange around the globe. First of all, unlike French or German, there is no central authority governing the evolution of English, so we have to accept a wide variety of pronunciation, grammar, and usage. Even the most professional, non-native English speaker will never reflect our local usage, and we should be prepared for this. I challenge you the next time you hear a well-versed foreigner use the “wrong” word, phrase, or pronunciation, to come up with a succinct rule why it’s wrong; you will likely find this incredibly difficult, except to say “it just sounds wrong.” For example, I predict that within 50 years the words “shadow” and “shade” and the terms “take a picture” and “make a picture” will be used interchangeably. (Wikipedia has an interesting list of feature of international English for you grammar geeks out there.)
And of course, do not allow the privileged position that our language enjoys make you lazy about learning another language.