Experiencing multiple Englishes, putting aside native-non-native-speaker categories

I was recently unlucky enough to spend a night and almost two days in hospital accident & emergency and outpatients departments. Suffice it to say that the health traumas that took me there had by then subsided; and I was well enough to look around and observe the remarkable interactions that took place within very culturally diverse groups of health professionals and patients. 

Of particular interest was the use of English. In trying to make sense of what was going on I tried hard to put aside what I consider to be the outdated and racist native-non-native-speaker distinction. This would have such an easy trap to fall into – to falsely divide the people there into so-labelled ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’ – which would then have led me into ‘us’-‘them’ categories of ‘foreign’ and ‘British’ or whatever – which, without everyone showing their passports, would be a very divisive thing to do.

Not allowing myself to do this enabled me to observe deeper and more interesting complexities. All the wealth of different accents, modes of expression, body languages, English in different realisations, simply produced Englishes. But this wasn’t ‘Englishes’ in the old ‘inner and outer circle’ sense. Indeed, the variety was as much to do with interlacings of age, subculture, small cultures of profession, and enactments of class, status and degrees of authority. One small moment of pragmatic near-failure I personally experienced – ‘I’ve been drinking a lot more recently’ (meaning water) – ‘so how many units?’ (meaning alcohol) – was to do with my own discoursal preference instead of where we ‘came from’. Indeed, it was a varicultural diversity of English.

In my deep appreciation of all the NHS (National Health Service) people I saw – important to say in these difficult times – I observed that what made communication possible was their sustained professionalism in eventually finding effective ways to communicate with whoever they encountered.  

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