Thought Leadership

Can you understand me?

By Colin Walls

This week I am in Nuremberg, Germany. It is a country that I enjoy visiting, as stuff seems to just work. On a small scale, you press a switch and a light tends to come on; on a larger scale, there is well integrated public transportation, that is even accessible to a dumb foreigner. This is a matter on my mind today …

As soon as I set foot outside of the UK [or even into some parts of my own country!], I am language challenged. I have trouble understanding stuff and, sometimes, even more trouble being understood. To the first approximation, I only speak one language: English – the UK version. I can normally manage Americanisms, but I get increasingly confused about which side of the Atlantic a particular word, spelling or pronunciation belongs [so I have mostly stopped caring].

I have often felt that I should make a bigger effort to master another language. Indeed, I have some vague plans that might come to fruition when I retire [whenever that is]. But a hard question is which language should I focus on? I could learn German, but that is no use to me in Italy, Spain, France … This leads me back to my current stance, which is that I try to use my own language well, as this gives me the widest opportunity to communicate.

A very important role for English nowadays is as an “auxiliary language” – a language used by two parties, for whom it is not native, but the only common option. English is very successful in this role and I think that this is because it can withstand “damage”. You can speak English very badly and still get your meaning across. Many other language become unintelligible very quickly, if you speak them badly.

Some time ago, I resolved to master and promote the language Toki Pona, as I think that would be an interesting tool. Its time may come.

My language challenge may be summed up by an experience this morning. I got onto a shuttle bus and made an enquiry:
Me: Gehen sie nach Eingang Ost?
Driver: Yes, that’s right. Have a seat.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at