Speaking English

by Anne Hulit

Why can't they all speak English?

When Irene came to the US 37 years ago she spoke no English at all, and while people think her self-taught non-standard diction is cute, they rarely know for sure what she means. Peter studied English in school for 13 years before coming to the US for his Ph.D., but lapses into Hong Kong Chinese when stressed. My Russian instructor said that graduates of the famous Soviet "spy school" used to joke about their linguistic limitations being so fluent in English they would only be caught if they used a word containing "r".

So, why can't we all just use English exclusively, since everyone on earth learns it in school? Why don't they get rid of their foreign accents? I hear questions like these a lot - mostly from people who think all foreigners should go back where they came from.

Language skill is not necessarily based on how long you study it. It's only partly related to hard you work at learning it, although when we need to we can learn fast (the basis of the "immersion" method). It can be very difficult - with obstacles that are physical, emotional, and cultural, as well as religious and political.

English is not only a difficult language in terms of vocabulary, but contains many, many examples of quirky pronunciation and grammar that have been with us through centuries of attempts at simplification. It's taught in many other countries, but not universally. People who need it for business, diplomatic, scientific, or military reasons choose to learn it, but most humans don't. For those who are motivated, there are obstacles other than political and religious ones.

For those whose first language has different sounds, it may be extremely difficult to learn phonemic patterns that don't exist in familiar speech. The physical work of learning pronunciation is only the beginning. Even before we're born, we hear language being spoken. As children, we learn to speak as much like our parents as possible because we have to communicate effectively in order to get our needs met.

In later years, we may try to lose regional speech patterns or learn another language. What makes it so hard to do? We have to unlearn physical processes and replace them with others, which means changing what is called "muscle memory".

Muscle memory makes it possible to learn sports, jobs, or other tasks, like language. It becomes automatic with practice, but at first it requires concentration and uses a lot of energy. As children, we practice, practice, practice until we can communicate well enough to get our needs met. As we grow, and our needs become more complex, we require more complex language skills. We move from labial sounds (mama, baba) to more difficult divided consonants and trills.

Since the muscles and other tissues in one's face and throat become trained in early childhood to speak with the phonetic patterns of our parents, teachers, and daycare workers, so much for losing the accent. Even with years of hard work, some sounds are difficult to change.

Speaking any language is based on learning to form sounds in a certain way using the voice and breath. When learning a new language, new positions must be learned and practiced, practiced, practiced until they become habits. None of my language teachers have ever tried to explain how a sound is physically made except the English prof who taught Anglo-Saxon.

Learning to use the glottis, tongue, palate, teeth, and lips to form the required sounds is only a start. In some cultures, the face is quite animated, while in others it is nearly immobile. Many English speakers keep their faces quite still and relaxed when speaking, and some simply mumble. This irritates those hearing-impaired persons who depend on lip-reading to help them interact with others. People who first encounter the "Connecticut Clench" are often amazed that anyone can communicate without moving the lips or jaws at all.

Some cultures see the habit of using the entire face when communicating as funny, intense, or even hostile, while others perceive immobile faces as sullen, sad, or again, hostile. That can be daunting if you're in the supermarket the day before this big Thanksgiving festival, trying to get up the nerve to ask that American woman over there how to cook these cranberry things.

For new speakers whose first language has the same set of basic sounds, and uses the same muscles to produce them, the obstacle is smaller. For those whose language is linguistically related (from French to English, for instance) it's often a matter of simply the desire to learn. As with work or hobbies, if your needs are being met with what you now have, you may not be motivated to acquire more or different skills.

For a language with no similarity at all, however, it's a mountainous job - even more so for speakers of an un-inflected language trying to learn an inflected language, or vice versa. For example, moving from Mandarin Chinese, with single-syllable words representing concepts rather than precise shades of meaning, to a highly-inflected language like Classical Greek, is a major task.

Probably the greatest obstacle to learning a new language is the fear of the unfamiliar. We tend to distrust those who are different from us, and most people express this as avoidance or even contempt. Since our discomfort with the unfamiliar seems to be universal, we could learn a lot by putting ourselves into a minority position occasionally. We can let it make us more generous, more tolerant of the difficulties of cross-cultural communication, rather than to let it reinforce our fear of second-language speakers of English.

We can't all do military service in Mannheim or Naples or Barcelona, and we can't all work in a business office where the computers are all configured in Korean (where I learned to appreciate Microsoft's icons and standardized menus). We can find ways to outgrow our fear of the unfamiliar by accepting that discomfort as part of the human experience. It cuts both ways that learning someone else's language can reduce the discomfort of living in multicultural communities, and also helps us to appreciate the evolution of our own language - however and wherever it is used, English or otherwise.

English itself is not only inflected but multi-cultural - that means complicated, quirky, difficult to learn. It appears to be losing the precision and the fine shades of meaning that enriched our literature and street language for centuries (so much that the new generation seems unable to understand what a pun is). As long as native-born Americans are satisfied with partial understanding, with half-understood language based on misused words and misspellings, how can we demand that immigrants speak English? Well, it's more than fear of the unknown, or contempt for other cultures. It's about survival.

Anyone who lives in a country where he or she does not speak the prevailing language runs a greater risk than simple discomfort with the unfamiliar. Here's another opportunity to make yourself feel like an immigrant - go to a grocery store in a predominantly Hispanic, Russian, or Asian part of town, and pick up a package of something you don't recognize. Imagine there's nobody in the store who can explain it in English. Notice the ingredients, the cooking directions, the serving suggestions. If you're lucky, it will have something in English stickered over the original. If you're lucky.

Grocery and pharmaceutical packaging in tiny letters is hard to read in any language, but not being able to decipher the text next to the warning symbols may be a matter of life and death. Do you order Thai food by the numbers? Not being able to read a restaurant menu may limit us a little, but being unable to read job applications, contracts, or industrial safety manuals can hurt us.

Putting the shoe on the other foot again, if an elderly Cambodian woman cannot explain her pelvic pain to a young male American doctor at Harborview, how would I go about describing mine in, say, Guatemala? I'd expect them to cut me some slack while I learned their language. And yes, it would sound funny to them at first, and they would laugh at me. In Europe they would tell me not to try to speak their language unless I spoke it fluently, but simply ignore me if I didn't speak it at all. We think its rude, but isn't that how we treat second-language speakers here?

But just because we were born here and we can get our needs met with the level of English we have, do we have the right to expect "pretty-good" English from newcomers? Not everyone speaks English in other countries, and for some people it's hard to learn even if they're motivated to do so in order to survive in the US. They try. They learn a lot from TV, movies, and magazines (my Chinese instructor learned English from the radio). They try so hard to get past that discomfort with the unfamiliar, and to get their needs met in a culture that rejects their own. For example, if you come from a country where women do not speak to strangers but let their male escorts do it, its hard enough to go out alone, not to mention get a job, let alone walk up and ask a strange man at a bus stop whether or not you just missed the #165.

Now we're telling the schools to provide instruction in American Spanish until the kids get up to speed in English, but doesn't that sort of disenfranchise those who speak neither English or any kind of Spanish? It's a compromise, not a solution. THEY all need to learn English, and learn it as fast as possible. WE all need to try to understand them in the meantime, to accept their cultural and physical difficulties with our language - just as we would expect them to do for us if the tables were turned.

I constantly hear Americans say we should send all immigrants back where they came from. If we did that, North America would be a big, empty place. My forebears all came from different places at different times, so where would you have me go? The Germany and Ireland of the 1800s, Wales in 1637, Napoleonic France? What about my friend who has no idea where her roots lie before the American South of her grandparents - where do you want her to go? Would you have sent back Einstein? How about those who do jobs we don't want to do? Or is it only the most different ones who should go? Who chooses which ones to deport? I don't believe that's the solution.

I believe that this is an English-speaking country, even though many of our native-born do not use standard English. I believe that our culture is based on that of Western European immigrants who brought with them Christian principles such as kindness and acceptance, even though most Americans don't believe in Christ anymore.

I believe that we should respect those who jump through INS hoops for years to earn the privilege of living in the US, even though so many risk their lives to sneak in illegally, and some come here to destroy us. I believe that we can choose to seek common ground with them, to find some point of understanding them, and to accept them as neighbors, workers, and fellow Americans.

I believe we should get over thinking we're better than they are because we were here first. But I also believe in green cards and ESL.

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