Internationally intelligible?

Arriving in Stantsed Airport the other day, I found myself in a long queue. I’d come off a flight from Spain and from what I could hear around me, many of the other travellers in the queue had just arrived from Italy. As we stood waiting our turn, the usual excited, anxious chatter of visitors arriving in a new country (especially one where they are going to have to speak another language), was regularly interrupted by an airport official walking around the back of the various queues waving a card in the air and shouting ‘Tronic parspaw’.

At first I didn’t really understand what she was saying, but when I saw that the card carried an image of a digital chip, it all fell into place, and I realised that she was calling our attention to the virtually queue-free option of using our electronic passports. However, from their reaction, I’d have to conclude that most of the Spanish and Italian travellers around me didn’t understand the message at all.

From a pronunciation point of view, it was nice to hear an Essex accent again. But from an international intelligibility point of view, it was interesting to see how this particular piece of information just wasn’t getting across successfully. It can be argued that the problem is with the visitors, who need to prepare for the fact that when they travel to the UK, it is their responsibility to be able to deal with the accents they are going to meet there.

But it can also be argued that a place like Stansted airport is actually an international arena, and so staff there need to be trained to speak in a way that it internationally intelligible. The reduction of ‘electronic’ to ‘tronic’ doesn’t really meet this requirement. And ‘passport’ pronounced with an ‘a’ as in’ cat’, and with a final ‘t’, would probably be easier to understand, at least for speakers of phonetic languages like Italian, Spanish or Polish, to name three. Pilots, we know, are required to speak in ways that are internationally intelligible, even if these are different to their own native speaker accents. Should this requirement be extended to all professionals in international environments?

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