Good Attitudes, Bad Attitudes and Mutual Intelligibility

The comedian Robbin Williams has a part of a stand-up routine where he muses over how unintelligible the Scots are to the rest of us English speakers. Saturday Night Live was hosted by Gerard Butler not too long ago and they did a funny sketch where a newscaster “interpreted” for the Scottish actor. I have a good Argentine friend who has lived in the USA for quite some time and has had to modify his accent and pronunciation significantly to communicate well with the Chicanos in California. These are supposed to be people speaking the same language yet there are Laotians and Thais, Swedes and Norwegians, and Croatians and Serbs who speak to each other in their own languages freely and understand 80%-90% of what the other is saying.

Dr. Arguelles just conducted a great interview with a Laotian (really Isan)/Thai speaker about how mutually intelligible the two languages are. I invite you to take a look.

I’m sorry. I’m too annoyed to understand what you’re saying.

Sometimes we don’t understand a language/dialect because we associate it with offensive or irritating people. This is often the case with a sophisticated city accent and a provincial or country accent. I think most of this ends up having to do with our attitudes because I have seen people in the states with very regional accents have long conversations with pretty foreign exchange students whose English was halting. There is also the example of a friend of mine who passed for a Japanese person on the phone and then met with the Japanese person who swore that he could barely understand my friend and wanted to speak to the Japanese person he had talked on the phone with.

I suppose what we can take from this is to have a good attitude when trying to understand others. Having a good attitude seems to clear the mind and facilitate communication. Not judging others for their way of speaking may just help you understand a foreign language better.

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