14 October, 2007


English as she is increasingly spoke

This morning I was standing on London Bridge station waiting for a connection. Announcements for my platform were being made by a woman with an African accent so thick as to be barely comprehensible. At least I think she was attempting to speak English. Perhaps it was Yoruba or Hausa. It might as well have been. I was able to interpret the announcements from context, long familiarity with the station's routine as a regular commuter, and by cross-referencing with the display screens. How less frequent travellers were getting on is another matter.

Now the point of this is that this woman was functionally incompetent. The job of train dispatch staff at London Bridge includes making announcements, as well as answering individual passenger queries. If she cannot speak English to an adequate standard, ie in a manner comprehensible to a native British English speaker, then she is unqualified and should not be working in that position.

Of course, I have encountered this situation on many previous occasions, but it would be counterproductive to complain to the railway; I can live without a couple of coppers breaking my door down and hauling me off to jail for speaking less than deliriously positively of a "member of a minority community", thank you very much.

This is nothing new. About 30 years ago I was in charge of a team which trained operators for what would now be called a high-end call-centre function. On one occasion the recruitment team (separately managed) took on a Ghanaian gentlemen whose Twi or Ewe or whatever was doubtless impeccable, but whose English was just not up to an adequate standard. He should have been terminated as close to immediately as employment legislation allowed. Instead, because middle management were as terrified then as they are now of accusations of racism, we had to devote resources to attempting to train this geezer, with entire weeks of individual tuition repeated two or three times. It took over four months of wasted resource to demonstrate to the management's satisfaction that he could be safely sacked for incompetence.

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