In Taiwan, it’s common to hear English language learners preface something they’re about to say in English with the statement “My English is not very good.” I’ve always wondered what that meant. Of course, it could simply be a direct, descriptive statement characterizing an L2 speaker’s perception of their own English proficiency level. But nothing is ever that simple. From the field of pragmatics, we know that there is always much more to what we say than what we actually say. And while usually when pragmatics is mentioned in a TESOL context, it usually refers to the difficulties L2 learners have with pragmatics of their L2, one idea that I’ve had is that out of L2 interactions in EFL environments developed pragmatics distinct to EFL context; essentially, a statement like “my English isn’t very good” may have a different meaning when used in a Taiwanese context than when used elsewhere.
So what could “my English isn’t very good” possibly imply other than the fact that the L2 speaker doesn’t think his/her English is very good? Here are some of my thoughts on the situations such disclaimers may appear and what using “my English isn’t very good” could possibly mean.
Situation #1 – Common Knowledge of Proficiency
First, we need to understand two philosophical concepts, often associated with game theory, logic, and epistemology. The first term, “mutual knowledge”, was developed by Stephen Schiffer in his book Meaning and it refers to knowledge that all parties know individually, but they don’t know that others also know. This is in contrast to a similar concept called “common knowledge”, introduced by David Kellogg Lewis in his study Convention (1969). “Common knowledge” refers to knowledge that all parties not only know individually, but they also know that others know the same knowledge as well.
Now in the first scenario of someone saying “My English isn’t very good”, the speaker is aware of a gap in proficiency between the speaker and listener, but doesn’t know if the listener is aware and wants to being the gap to the listener’s attention. Therefore, the disclaimer “My English isn’t very good” is an effort to establish common knowledge by saying the statement out loud. So, why would a speaker want to establish common knowledge? Well, with all the sophisticated factors and implications that result from even the simplest conversations, simply having mutual knowledge isn’t enough and may result in misunderstandings or miscommunication.
If the speaker knows that his/her English proficiency level is LOWER than that of the listener, the speaker may use the disclaimer “My English isn’t very good” to lower the listener’s expectations. The speaker hopes to establish common knowledge of their language proficiency gap to possibly avoid witnessing a negative from the listener (such as shock, judgment, disbelief, disappointment, etc) that might result from a misunderstanding.
If the speaker knows that his/her English proficiency level is HIGHER than that of the listener, the speaker may use the disclaimer “My English isn’t very good” to signal to the listener a self-awareness of the gap in proficiency. The speaker may want to establish the common knowledge of their language proficiency gap to avoid being misperceived as someone ignorant of their own skills and arrogantly showing off. Saying “My English isn’t very good” is like saying “I’m aware that my English is better than yours but I want to be humble about it”, an attempt to highlight the speaker’s awareness and humbleness.
Situation #2 – Common Knowledge of Social Discourse Conventions
What about situation in which all parties are already aware of everyone’s English proficiency levels? What is the purpose of prefacing “My English isn’t very good” in those situations?
One explanation would be an adherence to a social discourse convention, something that most speakers say as a convention in that context. Perhaps in Taiwan, it’s simple a social convention for speakers to start by humbly saying “My English isn’t very good”; in other words, saying “My English isn’t very good” as a disclaimer is already common knowledge in Taiwanese society. In such a scenario, everyone already knows that others know that everyone is supposed to say “My English isn’t very good” in English language conversations conducted EFL settings, which causes everyone to be even more aware of following that social convention. Not following the social convention (especially when it has been established as common knowledge, or something that everyone knows everyone knows) could possibly lead to negative impressions, misunderstandings, and judgement.
Situation #3: Common Knowledge of Listener/Speaker Responsibility
The last scenario involves listener/speaker responsibility. That is, who is perceived to be responsible for making communication work? Between two people, if there is a communication breakdown, who’s responsible for that?
Some might say it’s the listener who should have the responsibility of understanding or signaling understanding of the conversation, such as bringing awareness to any missing background information or using eye contact or facial gestures to show comprehension or lack of. For interactions with English language learners, speakers might attribute a communication breakdown to the listener’s low English proficiency or poor listening skills, rather than considering the possibility that they might have spoken too fast or used words beyond the listener’s level. Also, in this scenario, some might feel like it’s the listener’s responsibility to inform the speaker of any confusion, rather than the speaker detecting it.
Some might say it’s the speaker’s responsibility to control his/her language so that it is comprehensible to the listener. Listeners might expect the speaker to be the one that makes sure communication is as clear as possible, which would not only include using appropriate vocabulary and grammar but also making sure that the listener has enough background information to understand the content. Speakers should also be attentive enough in order to sense any confusion.
These differing roles can be seen in play when it comes to the different expectations of teachers and students. For example, when a teacher is explaining instructions for an assignment to students, students may expect the teacher to have the responsibility of delivery the information as clear as possible, and teachers may expect students to have the responsibility of signaling understanding or confusion to the teacher.
The problem with listener/speaker responsibilities is in two assumptions that people might make: 1) everyone has the same expectations of listener/speaker responsibilities, and 2) everyone knows that everyone has the same expectations of listener/speaker responsibilities (common knowledge).
Now, going back to the main question of this blog post, why do people preface what they’re going to say with the statement “My English isn’t very good.” Perhaps if the speaker has a lower proficiency level, saying “My English isn’t very good” is the speaker’s effort to recognize and express their expectations of speaker responsibilities, that if there is a communication breakdown, it is highly possible that it’s the speaker’s language skills that have caused confusion. The speaker may want to openly state his/her low level of English and a recognition of that responsibility beforehand so both parties have the common knowledge that any communication breakdown would be the responsibility of the speaker.
On the other hand, an English language learner that has a high level of competency may also say “My English isn’t very good” to signal the proficiency gap and possibly alert the listener that they need to listen more carefully than usual, emphasizing the role of listener responsibility.
These are simply some of my thoughts about what the statement “My English isn’t very good” could possibly mean. The underlying implications of how e use language fascinate me and show the complexity of human interactions as well as how difficult it is to understand them. It’s important for us to not perceive seemingly simple statements like “My English isn’t very good” as only as expressions of self-doubt and low confidence; such statements may actually signal greater, more subtly social meanings that are important in everyday interactions.