English as a second language

I read an interesting blog last night by Beyza Çitak about struggling to learn English (blog link). I can relate. I don’t speak English.

I speak American.

The “English” speaking world tries to make everyone think that the language spoken by English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, Indians, Singaporans, Kenyans, Bermudans, and Americans is all the same tongue.

Um. No.

I just ended a 26-month stint on an airplane certification project.

We had 17 nationalities represented. Five of those purportedly spoke English. Personally, I’m only willing to give credit to the English. The rest of us spoke some bastardized version of that language. 

Now let’s layer on accents. We had Japanese, Brazilians, Chinese (okay, everyone thought he was Japanese, because his Japanese was so good. When they learned he was Chinese, we were barred from hiring any more Chinese – seems there’s a bit of tension between the two.). We also had Germans, Romanians (seriously), Israelis, French, French-speaking Belgians, French-speaking French Canadians, and Canadian Geese – okay, actually Canada Geese, and they were more of a risk to the program than an actual participant. Still, they were there.

Canada Goose

Imagine you’re Japanese. Totally different culture and linguistic structure than English. (Quick example: In English it’s one chair, two chairs, three chairs, et cetera. Why does it make sense to differentiate between one and two, but not two and three? One chair. Two chairs. Three chairss, and so on? Why not one chair, two chair, three chair? Is anything lost there?). So now picture your Japanese self in a highly technical meeting talking about something like Limit Cycle Oscillation or Lateral Directional Stability. The engine guy is speaking English with a heavy French accent. The flight sciences guy is Welsh. The safety guy is American. The flight engineer is Japanese, except for the other one who is South African. The supply chain guy is Brazilian. The executive who has to sign off on the risk is Australian. Welcome to the UN. 

The best we could hope for was enough head nods to proceed. Seriously, the biggest risk to the program was miscommunication due to language barriers. Add to that our love of idiom. 

“If you do that, you’re gonna be thrown under the bus.” Try parsing that sentence if you’re Japanese with only the English you’ve been taught in school. Please note: No actual buses were involved.

This actually looks more like getting kicked under the bus.

“Let’s go cold turkey with those guys. Ballpark figure, it’ll cost us a fortnight.” No actual turkeys, ballparks, or forts here.

Add some cultural differences and societal norms and the confusion grows.

We haven’t even gotten to units of measure yet.

In 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter hit Mars on arrival instead of going into orbit. Different groups using different systems of measure was the primary causal factor.

Kilograms versus pounds. Kilograms vs. slugs. Wait. What? Where do Newtons fit in? How about speed? M/s, right? Nope. Nautical miles per hour. Aeronautical engineering doesn’t even have the decency to use statute miles. Pressure? Pascals, surely. Nope. Okay, then pounds per square inch. Wrong again. We’ll use inches of mercury. Please, God, take me now.

That’s all okay because at least the fasteners on the aircraft were all metric. Except for those that were Imperial.

The project failed. We did have some good parties, though.

Accents are harder to fight, but can’t we all agree on using the metric system?

Just a thought.

One thought on “English as a second language

  1. Thanks for referring my blog post, as you said we have different accents. Even in Turkey we call “Turkish English” because our accent is different than the others. And yes, we have cultural differences in terms of use of language. Exactly, in order to learn the language we should be exposed the culture of the language. I was talking about that I couldn’t have American/British accent. I loved your thought. I wanna thank you again you enlightened me 🙂


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