It takes two to be understood.

 Native English speakers need to meet everyone else half way

My husband and I don’t always understand each other. He likes Star Trek and Denzel Washington, I like The Times newspaper and cups of English breakfast tea. He’ll never get my obsession with dusting the leaves of my aspidistra plant. I’ll never understand what he gets out of wearing chinos. On these small matters of taste, we tolerate each other’s quirks and we find a way to get on. However, we frequently find ourselves bickering, arguments that can escalate into full-scale rows, about things we later discover we actually agree on.

Because my husband is a native speaker of French and I have English as a mother tongue, we frequently find ourselves tied in knots because of linguistic misunderstandings. I have a tendency to blame him for all of it, of course. I am the native speaker of English and we are in England after all. In my less sympathetic and more frustrated moments, I say to myself: ‘Why doesn’t he just get it? Why does he not understand this even when I have said it three times?’ But our report on page 27 made me realise my attitude is wrong – it is actually up to me to make myself understood better. Not to huff and sigh at his failure to grasp some quirk of English or fail to put the stress in the right place on a word like ‘Caribbean’.

“We frequently find ourselves tied in knots because of linguistic misunderstandings ”

Our interview with linguist Dr Barbara Clark reveals that airline pilots and ground staff who are non-native speakers of English are not always to blame for near-misses caused by miscommunication. In fact, native speakers can cause significant confusion by ignoring the rules of Aviation English and using jargon and slang.

What this finding really illustrates is how important it is to see communication as a two way process. It is up to the speaker to try to make themselves understood and it is up to the listener to try to understand. Pilots bandying around their local argot may think it’s the height of cockpit cool, but it won’t help Captain Martinelli land his Alitalia Airbus at Heathrow.

Administrators in New York clearly understand the importance of meeting English Language Learners half way by extending their school bilingual and transitional language programmes. Rather than stubbornly insisting that children ‘battle on’ in mainstream classes, they have taken a more nurturing approach I can approve of. Education chief Carmen Fariña, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, clearly knows that simply expecting non-English speakers to get on with it might end up excluding them from education altogether.


On our comments section, Melanie Butler explores how the Chinese are tackling preparing students for the Ielts test. Their reluctance to use communicative teaching techniques, which involve speaking and listening in English, may be stifling their potential to excel. Their tradition of ‘one way’ teaching methods may be holding them back, results suggest.

They might do well to remember, it takes two to communicate properly – and listening to the teacher might not be enough. It might pay to talk back.