Most people, I’d guess, believe there is a proper form of English. If there is, do you think you use it? Although I have very strong preferences for what I like in language, I do not believe there is a “proper” English. There is language that communicates well or badly, language that is beautiful or boring, and so on, but to me, language is alive, so it changes according to the context. I might stride the avenue of refined and polished discourse, but I ain’t got no problem with slipping down a green path, neither.
Every Monday after work I go to a library to meet a man from West Africa, where I tutor him in English. Although I had a few days of training in tutoring, I always wonder what I’m doing and whether it helps. Such doubt is the nature of language instruction, I think, because language is so slow to learn that you can’t easily see it happening. When I was teaching college writing, and I certainly had some training there, years of it, I always thought, “Does anything I do here make the slightest difference?”
Anyway, about my African student, I generally use an article from a newspaper to look at vocabulary and idioms. This may be useful as a way of looking at living language (I hope so), but it’s also an easy way for a lazy person like me to tutor. This past week we were reading a section that quoted someone speaking, and the speaker used the verb “go” to mean “speak”, which I’m pretty sure most Americans do. It’s slangy, of course, but common: Sheila goes, “We’ll be ready” and I go, “Right, like last time.”
That’s an interesting little metaphor, that “go”, like looking at speech as forward motion, but odd usage like that, interesting or not, makes it so much harder to learn a language. Every language has idioms that don’t make sense until you just flat out memorize them (like “a close shave” for something that could have gone badly but didn’t). Every language also uses plenty of metaphors, and every language I know much about—granted, not all that many—has rules as well as irregular damned exceptions that don’t follow the rules, I am, you are, he is.
So I go to my African student, “You’ll hear this a lot if you listen to people talk.” Later I got to thinking about how hard it would be to change countries as an adult and have to learn a new language. I’ve heard people in America complain about foreigners who don’t learn English well, as if the person saying that learned even 10 words of another language in school. Immigrants to America want to learn English, but desire does not make a heavy weight light.
About 25 years ago—a quarter of a century already, my God—I worked in Atlanta with people who had refugee status. I was their Russian interpreter, because many of them didn’t speak English. The people I worked with ranged in age from small children to elderly people. The young children were going to be speaking English without an accent in only two years, but I wondered about the older people. How much would they learn? How hard would it be? Sometimes I would imagine my own mother, if she had to suddenly move to another country. I would think of China, and I tried to picture her learning Chinese. Which would never ever happen.
Those Russian immigrants, or my student from Africa, embody a common American experience. It’s an experience that our ancestors struggled through but which is easy for us to forget about, going to a place where you suddenly become either a child or a stupid person in your language. I felt a bit of this experience the first time I went to Russia, thinking I knew something about the language, after studying it for years. Wow, did I find out different. I still remember a day trying to do something simple like buy stamps, standing at the window in the post office, not knowing even the three or four words that would have made it happen, and feeling like a complete dumbass for even trying in the first place.
A new language often feels like an ocean whose only purpose is to drown foreigners who try to speak it.
I’m posting tonight from Savannah, Georgia, and next week I’ll say more about the visit here.