Vocabulary lesson: accommodation

Vocabulary lesson: accommodation

"Subtle shifts of language are overlooked in the discourse about building a bilingual Dutch-English environment"

11-03-2024 · Column

As you know, I speak and write English natively. But I’d like to tell you how I use English differently in this international context, with lots of non-native users of English. I speak a bit more slowly, for one thing. I consciously use high-frequency words. And I don’t do the sort of verbal play that I do with my family (where, for instance, you pick up an inadvertent rhyme and build on it). 

I also try to remove idiomatic expressions from my speech and writing. However, the other day, I slipped. In an email, I wrote about “taking the temperature” of a group, and the recipient of my message didn’t grasp the idiom immediately. I have to continue being careful. 

I simplify the syntax of my sentences too. Once I wrote a sentence that was structured like, “Monday was a sunny day, Tuesday rainy.” But this ellipsis – that’s the name for this rhetorical pattern – confused the person, who was a highly-educated European Commission bureaucrat. “You are a native speaker of English, aren’t you?” they asked me. As my sentence was perfectly grammatical, I was the one to be confused. Now I stay away from very low frequency sentence structures. (I do this in my column too.) 

In the homelands of English, advice about writing usually dictates that you should use words with Anglo-Saxon roots. They’re shorter, for one thing. Also punchier. But in this environment, the better choice is often words with Latin or Greek roots, even though they have more syllables. That’s because they’re cognate with more other European mother tongues, so the texts are more accessible. 

These sorts of subtle shifts of language are overlooked in the discourse about building a bilingual Dutch-English environment at the university. This is a pity, because it makes invisible the linguistic accommodations that we already make – and which all of us will have to learn to do, and more often.

Being bilingual isn’t just about your knowledge of two linguistic codes, it’s also about your awareness of who you’re addressing and what their abilities are likely to be. Will this change your Dutch? Of course. Will this change my English? Of course – it already has. 

Michael Erard, Funding Advisor at the Faculty of Law

Author: Redactie

Photo: Joey Roberts

Tags: michael erard,language,bilingual,english,dutch,internationalisation

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