Intelligibility


Concept

Being intelligible means that you are understood by the person you are talking to. World Englishes scholars Larry Smith and Cecil Nelson (1985) have suggested that intelligibility is made up of the following three components:

  • intelligibility, the ability of the listener to recognise individual words or utterances
  • comprehensibility, the listener’s ability to understand the meaning of the word or utterance in its given context
  • interpretability, the ability of the listener to understand the speaker’s intentions behind the word or utterance.

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Most English language teachers probably assume that intelligibility is the responsibility of their learners. In contrast, the Smith and Nelson (1985) model focuses on the relative nature of intelligibility, suggesting that it is interactional between speaker and hearer, and that being intelligible means being understood by a particular listener at a particular time in a particular situation. What this means is that English users’ familiarity with any speaker’s way of talking is as important as how they are talking. In other words, the intelligibility of the English of Cormack and Bernadette you read and listened to earlier depends on how used you are to hearing their voices. Listen to them for any length of time, and they will become more intelligible (to you). The interactive nature of intelligibility is, regrettably, something so-called ‘international’ English tests ignore. How can speaking tests be valid and reliable when the examiner is (or is not) used to the test-taker’s variety of English?

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Most English language teachers probably assume that ‘interference’ from their students’ first language is a major source of any communication problems. But, as Jenkins’ (2002) research on pronunciation suggests, effective international communicators use many features that differ from those of native speakers without causing communication problems. In addition to pronunciation features, there are also many grammatical and lexical features which have been shown not to hinder communication. For example:

  • non-use of the third person present tense –s: she look very sad
  • omission and addition of definite and indefinite articles
  • use of an all-purpose question tag: isn’t it? no?
  • increase in redundancy: we have to study about, black colour, how long time?
  • pluralization of nouns: informations, staffs, advices

(Seidlhofer 2004, p. 220)

(You can confirm the findings of this research yourself by looking again at the Ban Ki Moon interview used in the first unit, Thinking about English.)

Research into intelligibility by World Englishes and ELF scholars has demonstrated that, contrary to the assumptions of many English language teachers, there is no causal relationship between being a native speaker of English and being intelligible in an international context. Instead, they have suggested, it is vitally important for all speakers of English to practise listening to a wide range of varieties of English and to adjust their speech in order to be intelligible to listeners from a wide range of language backgrounds. In the words of Suresh Canagarajah (2007, pp. 923 – 924), successful English language users ‘are able to monitor each other’s language proficiency to determine mutually the appropriate grammar, lexical range and pragmatic conventions that would ensure intelligibility’.

Activity

ELF in your part of the world

How do (or might, in the future) your students use English to communicate with speakers of other languages? How important will their ability to use the forms of ‘Standard English’ be in these contexts?

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Your answer will depend on your students’ age, location, access to the internet, hobbies, job, where they take their holidays, what other language(s) they speak, etc.

For example, if they have unblocked access to the internet, they may use some English on social networking sites and special interest discussion boards (like the bloggers we saw in the first unit of this course). They may use English at work for international commercial negotiations and transactions. Perhaps they sometimes holiday in a resort popular with international tourists. Or maybe they communicate in English with people from part of their own county where a different language from their own is spoken.

Only in some of these contexts will adherence to the norms of ‘Standard English’ facilitate communication, or be expected for reasons of social convention. And even where ‘Standard English’ might give users some interactional advantage or be expected from them (e.g. in formal writing), most users (NS as well as NNS) will be unable to perform with 100% accuracy.

This article first appeared at https://www.yorksj.ac.uk/changing-englishes/unit-2-using-english/intelligibility/

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