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International English

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Although one may cast doubt upon the significance of the World Congress of the International Society in the current era of internet or satellite transmission, nobody denies the importance of international communication. English is the international language at this moment and will continue to be so as long as the worldwide webs are growing. It is probably fair to say that this is a real advantage for the native English (NE) speakers and quite a burden for those who must use English as the second language (SL).

In 1972, my paper was accepted to be presented at the 8th Annual Meeting of Society of Thoracic Surgeons. This was when I was in training in the United States. My boss told me that the paper would be more fairly appreciated if a NE speaker read it. I have to confess that I felt a bit sorry for myself, despite that my English was far from perfect at that time. But I took his word and asked an American fellow to present it for me. At the Meeting in San Francisco, my boss asked the chairman of the session to introduce me to the audience, and to give me credit for the paper. I still remember how pleased and relieved I was.

In 1995, a paper of one of my fellows in Tokyo was accepted for presentation at the 31st Annual meeting of STS in Palm Springs. I told this individual, just as I had been told 23 years previously, that the paper would be more clearly understood if read by another fellow who had just returned from a year in the United States.

It was very nice to know that The STS held a language workshop during the 37th Annual Meeting. I assume that this becomes necessary as The STS has more international members and visitors. However, I feel that the effectiveness of such a session is limited as far as speaking is concerned, because it is impossible for most SL individuals to speak English in their home environments. From my personal experience, SL speakers will never able to catch up with NE speakers, unless they move to a country where they have to speak English in their daily lives.

In an international organization, the situation is quite different from a national Society like the STS. I think we need to define a new term: International English (as opposed to National English). International English has the potential for becoming the tool for communication all over the earth. It is not a possession of NE speakers, but a precious asset for all of mankind that needs to communicate beyond the boundaries of countries. Of course, the SL speaker must learn how to use International English in order to make oneself understood in the international community. The NE speaker, on the other hand, must use the International English with utmost caution, because the slang and jargon of colloquial daily English will not be found in the World Dictionary of International English.

This idea came from my more than 20 year experience in two international surgical organizations, the International Society for Cardiovascular Surgery (ISCVS), and the Asian Society for Cardiovascular Surgery (ASCVS).

The ISCVS is the mixture of NE and SL speakers. The official language is a composite of domestic/Standard and International English. NE speakers from different parts of the globe speak quite differently, although they may claim that they are speaking Standard English. It is sometimes difficult for SL speakers to understand the English dialects, especially when they are spoken very fast. Sometimes this has resulted in serious international misunderstandings.

On the other hand, the ASCVS is composed mostly of SL speakers. Although surgeons from Singapore, Hong Kong, and India are more accustomed to using English, they know how to communicate with other Asian peoples who do not use English at home. Although English spoken at their meetings is sometimes imperfect and below the linguistic standard, there have been no problems of mutual understanding. Discussions in ASCVS are much easier to understand than in ISCVS. This is because all participants in ASCVS care about the other participants who may not be very proficient in Standard English. International English is being used with success in the ASCVS.

The key for international communication is not dependent on fluency in any language, but in its content. In my opinion, international communication requires a little bit of patience, kindness, politeness and wisdom on the part of everyone involved.

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