English: not quite everywhere

Standing on the train last night I commented on how badly it smelt. I really hate the smell of alcohol seeping out of people’s pores. Marty asked me, when we were walking back to our apartment, if I realised when making that comment that people on the train might have been able to understand me. I was surprised that he asked me this because of course I know that people may be able to understand me when I speak. And I have no problems stating that I find something smelly.

Some linguists reckon that around 1.5 billion people speak English. That’s an estimate based on mother tongue, second language and foreign language speakers. That means that 1 out of every 4 people in the world can speak English well enough to understand when I say that a train carriage is smelly. Of course I am living in a city were English is only known as a foreign language so it won’t be a many as 1 in 4 Japanese who can speak English but I can’t imagine being on a full train carriage in Tokyo where there isn’t someone there who could understand me.

Being a native English speaker I have never had the luxury of thinking that others can’t understand what I am saying. Yes, I have an accent that some find hard to follow but the meaning of what I am saying can usually be picked up by other people who speak English. I have noticed that some people speak in their own language when they want to hide what they are saying. It’s rude to do this but it hasn’t people I know in Holland from saying things in Dutch that they hoped I would not be able to understand.

It’s not that sensible to assume that the people around you can’t understand when you insult them in your native language. I know that my Dad has had a lot of fun listening into Dutch conversations when he is on holiday as the Dutch assume that only other Dutch people can understand them. They hear him speak English and just assume that it’s the only language he knows. Not clever.

So Marty, your wife who is currently studying the English Language and who was reading David Crystal’s “The English Language: a guided tour of the language” when you met her last night is indeed aware that lots of people in the world can speak English.