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Translation: Institutionalised airport mistake

A number of years ago, AENA, the Spanish airports authority, installed some software to announce flights. It involves piecing together bits of pre-recorded speech in various languages to compose messages which are read out on the public address system.

It has to be said that it was a great improvement on the previous system, in which Spanish speakers made up the messages as they needed them, in whatever languages were needed, with sometimes dreadful results. This is what is still done on board aircraft, where the flight crew read from scripts and fill in the blanks. We all know how frustrating it can be not to understand what they are saying, when perhaps our safe arrival depends on it. Do flight crews never get any training in speaking into a microphone? Even bad pronunciation can be mitigated by speaking clearly, slowly and rhythmically and holding the voice volume constant right to the end. The basics of public speaking, in fact. Male flight attendants, in my experience, can be the worst; they seem to be proclaiming: “I’m really good at this, and to prove it I’m going to read it very fast and run all the words together. You will be very impressed.”

Back to the subject of the AENA software. Here’s a typical boarding message:

“Please passengers proceed to gate number 5, where flight Iberia 1234 is now boarding.”

In correct English it would be:

“Will passengers please proceed to gate number 5, where Iberia flight 1234 is now boarding.”

Just two fairly trivial mistakes which we would readily forgive a foreigner. Indeed we’d scarcely notice if it weren’t for the fact that these mistakes are repeated hundreds of thousands of times a year in dozens of airports. And they come from a beautiful native English voice, probably an actor who pre-recorded the bits.

What, I wonder, is the impact on regular Spanish travellers? Hearing something repeated ad nauseam is a great way to reinforce language learning. So my guess is that a whole generation of Spanish speakers of English believes that the above word order is perfectly correct English, and might even be puzzled not to hear it in Heathrow or JFK airports.

One more example of how English, as a world language, is developing parallel dialects. One more example of how the second language Spaniards learn is really a Spanish dialect of English, reinforced by millions of Spaniards imitating each other’s mistakes. When we observe that foreigners have difficulty learning some features of English because of interference from their native tongue, perhaps the interference is just as importantly from the local dialect of English, which they are learning all too efficiently from their compatriots.

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