I overheard an awkward conversation between a native speaker and some tourists this morning in the centre of London. It was one of those exchanges that, as an English language teacher, I often feel compelled to intervene in, although this time at least I managed to resist the temptation!
“Excuse me. You can tell me where is Leicester Square?” the most confident – and youngest – of the tourists asked a man in front of me. “Yeah. Course” he started. “You’re best nipping down the back here and then popping out down opposite where Les Mis is on, alright?” The tourists looked totally confused and managed only to reply by asking “Best?”
Realising he may have been slightly optimistic in his use of everyday English, the local managed to grade his language second time around and explained – whilst also waving and pointing more – that they needed to walk down the small street in front of them, then come out onto the main road when they could see the theatre where Les Miserables is playing. They looked grateful, as well as slightly scared, and went off in the right direction.
I walked off to meet a friend thinking about how bad many native speakers are at speaking to non-natives, a point made in a recent BBC article, but also thinking about the fact that the only part of the initial message the tourist had grasped was the word BEST. To me, this is symbolic of a problem lots of language learners face – and it’s to do with the way grammar is often presented. Most learners will learn BEST as a superlative form of GOOD. They may see sentences like It was the best pizza I’ve ever had or That’s the best film I’ve seen this year.
They probably also do a lesson on giving advice, where they learn YOU SHOULD. They may do a slightly strange practice that involves a conversation a bit like this:
I have a headache. What should I do?
> You shouldn’t panic. You should stay calm and you should take some aspirin.
How many should I take?
> You should do take two. You shouldn’t take more than that.
But because too few classes treat spoken language seriously or try to teach things that are often actually said, what they WON’T learn is that we often give advice by saying YOU’RE BEST …. –ING! It’s also common to say YOU’RE BEST OFF instead, which means exactly the same thing. Here are a few examples that came up from a quick Google:
You’re best taking an umbrella. It’s going to chuck it down later
It’s a long enough flight across at least five time zones — surely you’re best paying for quality
You’re best off treating folk the way you’d want to be treated and leaving their choices to them.
If you want to grind up whole spices on your own, you’re best off using a coffee grinder.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach best as a superlative or that it’s not useful to learn You should. What I am saying is that if you want to really develop your fluency, you need to see patterns beyond the traditional canon and you need the chance to practise using them in meaningful contexts.
Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take one of our summer courses.
- Have you ever had trouble trying to understand native speakers when abroad?
- What three things do you think visitors to your town / city are best (off) doing? Why?
- Why do you think non-natives often find it easier to talk to other non-natives than to natives?
The idea here is not only the spoken variety of the language but also using a kind of localisms. All Russian people speak Russian but if a stranger in Volgograd is told “You are best going down and turn round the toilet bowl” he will be taken aback. Not because he doesn’t know Russian but because he doesn’t know that the locals call the Palace of the Unions just the toilet bowl… And in the conversation presented above the local uses ‘Les Mis’, which isn’t English and I’m sure sounds like something awful.
Moreover, the local uses “nipping down the back here and then popping out down opposite where Les Mis is”. These ‘nip down’ and ‘pop out down’ are slang which is impossible to know unless you live in this place. That’s why the problem, as I see it, is not in the spoken variety which the tourists didn’t know but in the peculiarity of the local language
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’d totally agree that the use of LES MIS to mean ‘the theatre where Les Miserables has been showing for years’ very much depends on local knowledge, yes. However, POP is a very common verb – two stars in the Macmillan dictionary, where the second-most common meaning is ‘to go somewhere quickly or for a short time’ – so should really get more coverage. In many ways, this is why we started our ONE-MINUTE ENGLISH series of videos – to cover these items all too often omitted from coursebooks. Here, for instance, is a video on NIP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0hcRLTK0Jw
And here’s a whole blog post about the word POP: https://www.lexicallab.com/2015/01/pop/
this is an eye-opening article! well…as well as the rest ones ))) thank you so much!
Glad you enjoyed in Olga.
Have you ever had trouble trying to understand native speakers when abroad?
well, once I had a conversation with a couple from Scotland. for the very first 5 min I thought they were from Norwey (silly me)… with such pronunciation, those “RRR” in words… they laughed when I said that trying to understand them made me feel miserable as if I didn’t know any English at all and then threw a joke that Irish speak even worse… so I struggled with pronunciation, though I didn’t face any vocabulary issues. I believe they did their best to use standard English.
If it’s any consolation, even Brits can struggle with each other’s accents. I still remember the first time I went to Glasgow and Newcastle as a teenager – and couldn’t understand much at all, so I feel your pain!
IMHO, there are formal and informal style of speaking. Grammar and Lexis of colloquial style are not thought via textbooks in General. In classrooms we teach English for School exams or International ones. English for travelling can be from A1to C2. English for Life has different grammar, syntax, Lexis, wordformation. Dear Hugh&Andrew, could you please give a thought about writing a Spoken English Grammar Book based on LA?
Hi Nora –
Thanks for taking the time to write and to comment.
I’d agree that more formal spoken English is almost always given the nod over more informal variants, and whilst I understand the logic, it’s still a shame that even at B2 and above, there’s so little attention paid to everyday speech.
With regard to a grammar book based on spoken English, it is something we have often discussed, but simply haven\t managed to get round to yet. Maybe one day.
In the meantime, you might want to check out Ken Paterson’s HANDBOOK OF SPOKEN GRAMMAR.
I think the real challenge that complicates immediate comprehension in the reply of the local was the combination of an unfamiliar use of “best” with other colloquial phrasal verbs like “nip down” and “pop out”, which makes the whole sentence nothing like the ones we’re teaching students. I tend to think the tourists would have had less of a problem had the local replied “you’re best walking down…” This would perhaps include just the right amount of new information to process and learn in one go.
I think you’re right. It was obviously a mixture of extreme informality, assumption of local knowledge, accent and speed of speech combined that made it tricky. It is still amazing how litle we focus on things like POP though, given how common it is.
Not all native speakers have had the privilege of being educated ‘proppa mate’, watcha expect???
Ahahaha :). True. I should have squeezed in “hypothetically speaking” in there somewhere.
Not everybody is so well educated and able to grade their language. At least the man tried to help. You sound pompous.
I wasn’t in any way mocking his English and I hope I made it clear that he did then grade his language. I grew up speaking a lower-class variant of London English myself, so know how it is. My point was two-fold: (1) we don’t teach enough everyday spoken language – often because we’re so obsessed with grammar that that takes up way too much time and (b) that it takes two to end up with a communication breakdown – the fault doesn’t ONLY lie with the listener. That was all. Sorry if that somehow struck you as pompous.
I loved this article, Hugh!
What about adding this variation of ‘best off’: ‘you’re better off doing sth’…? The pattern can be different, e.g. in Tom Waits’ song ‘Better Off Without a Wife’ 😉
This is an informative article. It makes me want to read your other articles too.
Please do. There’s plenty here to read, so . . . .