How I Learn Languages

English: Language of the Uncomfortable


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A few days ago, in the WSJ piece, What the World Will Speak in 2115, a linguist at Columbia University noted that English is “on its way to being spoken by every third person on the planet.” While that means native English speakers like me will have it even easier in the future, I can’t help but feel a tiny tinge of pain, knowing that many of these “English speakers” will speak dead English.

By which I mean, I don’t mean Old English. (That would be kinda cool actually.) I mean they’ll say basic things like “Finish your spreadsheet by Monday” but not much more. Many will feel totally out-of-element speaking English.  Some may never grow into the language; English will be like awkwardly-sized shoes that make them hobble clumsily around.

I’ve encountered a lot of awkward English in my time in East Asia. Why East Asia and why does this awkward English make me feel uncomfortable?

For one, the English language spoken by native speakers is more fluid than many other languages, so the contrast between dead and alive English is especially stark. Growing up, I watched the Suite Life of Zack and Cody and more recently, I watched Suits and brief clips of The West Wing. What I enjoyed the most about these TV shows was the wittiness of the lines, and growing up I also had many witty friends and family (my sister), which is why I am especially sensitive to rigidly-spoken English. I don’t think I’ve seen such witty banter thrown around in Japan, Korea, or Taiwan.

Of course, people still joke around in those countries, but their humor does not involve being nearly as creative with the language (making new words on the spot, being pun-ny, throwing in Old/British English, personifying objects, etc) unless they are the star of a comedy program. Although Japanese do people “mess with language” by switching to the formal register for comedic effect, imitating other dialects, and reversing the spelling of words (e.g. くりそつ instead of そっくり) I would say there are still far fewer ways of messing with language than in English.

Further, many East Asians learning English treat it as a form of formal communication. In Japan, I notice that some people who speak good English become rigid when they speak it, not because they’re nervous, but because they view it as a formal language. It makes me uncomfortable to hear English spoken this way and I wish they would just switch to Japanese and relax.

Interestingly, the reverse can be said of many Americans who study Japanese. Since most are studying it for fun, even if they cannot speak it well, they’ll still entertain the Japanese people they’re speaking to.] But for many in Japan and Korea, English is nothing more than the score you get on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). Some companies force their employees to learn English, so unsurprisingly many of their employees are even less likely to see English as a fun language. From my time interning at such a company, I observed that those who studied abroad tend to be much more comfortable in English, probably because 1) they were interested in English in the first place; and 2) they experienced the “culture” of English.
For most people, poor accent, intonation, grammar, and vocabulary may impede communication more than feeling comfortable in a foreign tongue. However, I believe the opposite is true of English-learners in East Asia: it is the inability to feel at ease in English that drags them down. Perhaps this is something their English education system should address.

Great comment from my friend Virgil:

[I am transposing this from my now-defunct Weebly blog]

Hi Frances, (holy cow I’m writing a comment that never happens to me!) Your article is very interesting and I sometimes experience the same frustration when speaking a language proficiently with someone who does not. BUT I will say that I could never have gotten to the point where I can “play around” with the English language (which I hope I actually do) were it not for the hoards of willing friends who corrected my grammar and pronunciation, explained puns and jokes, and clarified cultural references in those awkward times when all I could do was blurt out sentences exactly the way I’d heard them. I try to remember this when I’m speaking with someone who is stumbling through the language.

PS: annoying note: “Old English” usually refers to that weird, never spoken Saxon language that “Beowulf” was written in. I’m pretty sure no one I know throws in things like “Hwæt! We Gardena in gear-datum þeod-cyninga…” After Old English came Middle English (Chaucer), then modern English (Shakespeare). You may have known all this and have meant “dated”, in which case I apologize for being a useless nerd.

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