Or, in plain English: two non-natives communicate more easily in a second language than either would with someone born speaking that language. That’s the conclusion of a study by Tessa Bent and Ann R. Bradlow, as reported in a Philip Ball story in Nature.

It isn’t hard to see why a Korean, say, might find another Korean’s English easier to follow than an English person’s. The two share a phonetic vocabulary lacking some of the vocal effects that render the language alien in a native’s mouth. A foreign accent hinders a native but helps a fellow non-native.
But what about speakers with different first languages? One might suspect that only some languages, like Korean and Chinese, or Spanish and Italian, share sounds that help their mutual intelligibility. But that doesn’t seem to be so.
Instead, there may be features of the target language that all non-natives omit, suggest Tessa Bent and Ann Bradlow from Northwestern University in Illinois. American English speakers often fail to sound consonants at the ends of words clearly, for example, making it hard for non-natives to tell one word from another….
The duo assembled a veritable Babel from students at an American summer school for learning English. Their subjects included Chinese, Koreans, Bengalis, Hindi speakers, Japanese, Romanians, Slovakians, Spaniards and Thais, as well as American English speakers.
Participants took turns speaking and listening. They were recorded saying simple English phrases such as ‘The dog came back’, and assessed for their intelligibility.
As long as the proficiency of the speakers was not too low, non-natives found each other at least as intelligible as native English speakers, regardless of whether they shared a first language, Bent and Bradlow found. Natives found each other more intelligible than non-natives, just as one would suspect.

Many thanks to Peter for the link!


  1. Of course there was that one time I had to act as an interpreter between some Japanese tourists who were speaking English and an Italian bank teller who was also speaking English. Neither could understand the other, but as a native speaker I could figure otu both.

  2. I always find foreigners easier to understand in the languages I speak well enough to use but am not terribly fluent in. They use a stripped-down vocabulary and speak more slowly. Never mind where they’re from. And they are much more hip to how it feels to speak a language not your own. Think of all the times you’ve asked someone who speaks an outrageous dialect to slow down. Which they do for about three sentences, then accelerate to warp speed again as soon as you show signs of being able to follow them. I have often experienced this in the south of France…

  3. I read German not too well, and if I happen across a journal article that’s easy to read I look up at the author’s name. It’s usually not a German name.

  4. zizka: Me too! Back in my Indo-Europeanist days, I always found the writings of Oswald Szemerenyi a great relief from the turgid, multiple-preposed-claused sentences of echt Germans.

  5. Of course, people vary quite a bit in their ability to make themselves understood, regardless of language fluency. There are some native English speakers who I can hardly understand, and not because of accent. Although I am a poor language learner, I’ve always been good at making myself understood with a limited vocabulary. And then there is the question of listeners. It’s been shown that graduate students comprehend less of the same recorded speech when they have been told the speaker is a non-native speaker than when they think it is a native speaker. I think that explains why I’ve had better Chinese conversations over then phone than I’ve had in person (with strangers that is).

  6. I have been told that my Briteesh is quite hard to follow for some speakers of Merkin as a second language.

  7. I’m glad somebody has sat down and confirmed this properly; I’ve often noticed it myself.

  8. I think it’s the speed. I also feel more comfortable speaking with another non-native speaker. There’s less of the pressure that they’re going to say something I don’t understand and I’ll be exposed as faux-fluent.
    We’re also both strangers to the culture as well as the language, so there are fewer cultural references that I just don’t get.

  9. Yes, cultural references are the final barrier, after you’ve gotten pretty fluent with the language itself. Nursery rhymes, sports figures, dumb movies (not the kind that get exported and shown in art houses), pop music, snippets from otherwise forgotten poems (“I think that I shall never see”)… There are endless things they don’t teach you in language class.

  10. As an english speaker, I studied linguistics in German at one stage as part of a German degree. We discussed the German technical/academic writing issue as part of our degree. I remember one of my linguistics professors, who was echt Deutsch but who had done post-graduate education study in Australia had this as a pet topic.
    He said that German academic writing was intentionally dense and unintelligible, because it is the duty or obligation of those who know less to work to understand those who know more. In many english speaking theories of academic writing, there is an understanding that the writer (who knows more) also has an obligation to write in such a way that those who know less are able to understand.
    In short, there is no equvalent of the plain english movement in German.

  11. Robert Schwartz says

    “I read German not too well, and if I happen across a journal article that’s easy to read I look up at the author’s name. It’s usually not a German name.”
    A freind of mine worked with an elderly WWII refugee scholar. The Scholar had stopped writting in German when he had arrived in America. He told my friend that it was too easy to write non-sense in German and he found it impossible to write non-sense in English.

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