SUBWAYMy first day at an English-speaking school was miserable. It was full of small humiliations: the kind that, with the retrospective look of adulthood, seem trivial but that in childhood sow the seeds of a feeling of inadequacy that one can never expel.
My family had just moved to Kenya, where English was the official language. He was seven years old and couldn’t say a word about it, having grown up in an Arabic-speaking country up to that point and had been educated in an Arabic school.
I sat in class in silence, stunned, hoping that no one would notice my disability. But I got noticed because I had put my backpack in the wrong place. And the teacher, who finally had to use gestures to get to me, demanded to know where I was.
Out of a childish urge to hide my clumsy self and belongings, I had hidden my inappropriately large bag, filled with supplies by an anxious mother, in a closet in the back of the classroom. I sat silently as the teacher’s questioning grew more furious. In the end I dropped where I had left the bag, but in Arabic. The professor blinked. The whole class laughed. My eyes stung. The bullying started that day and didn’t stop until I learned enough English to lose the spot of difference.
The funny thing is that, as impossible as it seemed at the time, I don’t actually remember learning English, which I suppose is due to the speed with which children learn a new language. All I remember is one day sitting in humiliated isolation and the next being able to read an entire first grade book cover to cover.
Despite the quick acceptance, my language challenges weren’t over. My English was unbalanced – all vocabulary bulging from reading too much to make up for a late start, but lack of confidence to use words in conversation. It was pushed with, but could not replace, my first language: Arabic.
Today, even after nearly four decades of education and work in the English language, I still fall short of the standards my teachers set. My accent is everywhere. I still often have to pause my speech and translate the thoughts in my head from Arabic first, which affects my articulation; And I still mispronounce the words
I am also often corrected, something that reflexively brings me back to that moment under the spotlight in the classroom. Not a nasty correction, most of the time, plus a funny question. When I say “meLAN-kolly”, do I really mean “MELON-kolly”? “Interwined”, it was pointed out softly, maybe it had a T in the middle (it shouldn’t: much more evocative without it). And the most British correction of all comes in the form of a polite: “How do you pronounce it? I think it could be X, but I could be wrong. “It is not as uncommon an impulse as one would think. recent survey revealed that many people are more than happy to correct friends, family, and strangers when they make mistakes.
I no longer have time for that kind of precious language. Having spent so many years trying to “improve” my English, I found that the more I tried to follow the rules, whether they related to accent, pronunciation or even inflection and tone, the more indecisive and overly formal my language became. English. The English I ended up speaking is (as all languages are) dynamic and porous to other influences, and much more expressive for it.
In my childhood home, the English we learned in school merged with Arabic in such organic ways that I couldn’t tell you when it started or by whom. Where Arabic sentence constructions seemed difficult, simpler English ones replaced them, and vice versa. We add “ing” to Arabic words to turn them into verbs. Other times, we move simpler Arabic sentence structures to more cumbersome English ones, eliminating words like “am” and “is”, which do not exist in Arabic. To this day, we still say “I’m tired” or “I’m hungry.”
This is not a quirk of education: it is the experience of most English-speaking people. Far more people speak English in the rest of the world than in native English-speaking countries. I’m even reluctant to use the word “native,” because it implies a certain propriety, some consistent, consistent, correct English source that exists only in a small number of nations and has been corrupted by others.
English is listed as a national language in more than 50 countries worldwide. The Indian government uses it as a complement to Hindi and is the language of the Indian judiciary. In some African countries, an English version is the primary language of bureaucracy, education, and the media. With this adoption, a process called “nativizationIt can occur, with local accents, grammar, and even cultural concepts (for example, the position of ‘older wife’ in polygamous countries in West Africa) influencing English and subtly changing it.
Even Standard English has undergone a “nativization” of its own throughout history, absorbing large amounts of French vocabulary, for example, even with a hint of Arabic. No version of the English we speak now is “pure”, so monitoring pronunciation, or any other arbitrary language code, is useless, the equivalent of patrolling an ever-changing border.
The purpose of language is to facilitate communication. The magic of language is its ability to evolve spontaneously to facilitate that communication, incorporating and accommodating the influences and, therefore, the needs of those who use it. Caring for the integrity of the English language and allowing it to breathe and change go hand in hand. It could even be said that they were intertwined.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism