It’s remarkably easy to make mistakes in spoken or written English. Speaking as someone for who (for whom?) the endless days of pronouns and subjunctive clauses are but distant memories of endless summer days spent staring out of the window waiting for the endless school holidays, it’s easy to make technical mistakes. But it’s not the technical mistakes that i’m thinking about here. It’s the nuances and details that give away whether you’re a native speaker, or someone with a very good technical understanding.
My great aunt is German, and forever making photographs. Where i would ‘take’ them, she ‘makes’ them. We both understand each other perfectly, and there’s nothing wrong with her grammar, indeed, i suspect she would give me more than a run for my money, but still there is something about her phrasing in this instance that stands out.
Out walking with some Dutch friends last week, one of them said they felt rosy. It’s a perfectly good expression, and indeed, i might say to someone that they have rosy cheeks, but it’s an unusual phrasing to say you feel rosy. It’s a charming expression, but feels faintly archaic in English, whilst in Dutch, it’s perfectly normal.
These nuances and phrases, the colour and texture of communication, are not only specific to different languages, they vary within a country dependent upon region or dialect. My glaswegian colleague calls everyone ‘dear’, something that would sound most peculiar if i tried it myself.
There used to be a time when people built houses out of local materials. If you lived in the forests of the Home Counties, you’d build timber framed houses, with thatched roofs, whilst if you lived in stony Sussex, you might use flint and lime mortar. Nobody would go to the trouble of carting wood to a stony area to build a house, because the roads were poor and it took a long time with a donkey.
Then the railways arrived, allowing the easy and cost effective transport of raw and processed materials, alongside the industrialisation of production, meaning that suddenly it was cost effective to make bricks in Kent and train them to Wales. Suddenly the architectural language of the country changed. Rafts of houses sprung up to identical designs with identical materials around the country. Council houses of red brick and cheap tiles proliferated, dumbing down the visual beauty of villages and towns and bringing indoor toilets and graffiti to the masses.
Whilst bulk transport and industry bought reduced costs and increased benefits to the masses, it did lead to a blandness of design and build and a loss of regional variation.
Our languages are similarly under pressure now. The desire to create ‘global’ solutions, the ubiquity of English as the language of the internet and the absolute domination of spelling and grammar checkers are ironing out diversity and variation. Whilst we used to have regional and national variation and divergence, it’s now seen as provincial: at best charming, at worst, stupid. Indeed, we’ve gone one step further, with one insurance company now advertising Yorkshire call centres and scripting their advisors to talk about having a cuppa and dry stone walling. Quite how we got to a place where we started to ridicule Indian call centres for their inability to understand the importance of talking about the weather, or, worse, actually trying to have a conversation about the weather, to where we celebrate the ability of the Yorkshireman to talk about tea, i don’t know.
But beneath this, there is a serious point. Clearly people are more comfortable with the artificial Yorkshire hospitality, corporate and scripted as it may be, than with the Indian call centre and their efforts to establish rapport. But what about the impacts for creating global learning solutions? How far do we regionalise and nuance our scripts and approaches?
Is everything to be delivered in received pronunciation, like a 60’s radio show, or should we be regionalising everything and, if so, on what criteria? Should we hire a Yorkshireman to deliver the videos because we cynically feel that it will sound more homely? And how about when we go for translations. Should we vary scripts to ensure that in English we take photographs, whilst the Germans are free to make them whilst walking rosy cheeked across Europe?
Certainly an approach that allows for regional variation is appealing, and popular with learners, although bringing as it does an increased overhead of production and version control, it’s not popular with budget holders.
There must be a middle ground, one which allows us to work globally, but avoid the delivery of identikit, bland transliterated solutions. There must be a way of including regional and national flavour and texture whilst meeting the corporate governance needs of compliance and sign off. There must be a way of doing it without resorting to blunt stereotypes of talking about the tea and the weather.
There must be, but we struggle to find it quite often. Whilst the internet is an amazing technology for facilitating access to information, we do run the serious risk of homogenising our output too far. It’s not a question to which i have an answer. I feel certain that sometimes we’ve done things well, allowing different regions to take a base script and make it their own, although more often than not, we are too excited about our ability to deliver globally to think about what impact the materials have.