2.5.1 Intelligibility



Intelligibility is the responsibility of hearers as well as speakers

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.

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?

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?
      ● pluralisation 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, Defining 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 (see for example, Wicaksono, 2012). Instead, it has been 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’.


 Discussion point 2.2

Share here any interesting examples of misunderstandings in ELF contexts, either involving native speakers or solely between non-native speakers. To what extent were they language-based? Do you recall how they were resolved?