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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

The English Language

For all of you who don’t know already, I teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL), and for those who do know, I can add that I’ve been doing this now for 4 years. My students are mostly Czech, but I’ve also taught Hungarians, Rwandans, and Slovaks. They speak English, and continue to learn in order to improve their skills, for a variety of reasons. Oddly enough, fewer than half use English for their job as an every-day activity. They mostly use it for the opportunity it gives them to communicate with people while traveling.

Of course this gives me an advantage, because I grew up with English. But it also sets me apart, because non-native speakers like to (prefer, in fact) speak with other non-native speakers. There’s a lesson in New English File (advanced) that hits on this very subject.

I’ve just finished “The Secret Life of Words” by the linguist and writer Henry Hitchings. Toward the end, as he putting a summation on the book’s path through all the many languages from which English has borrowed words, he writes…

If you hear a woman speaking Italian, you can be confident that she is Italian. Sitting on the London Underground, I am able to recognize that the group of young men opposite are Poles: I hear words and phrases that are familiar to me from my travels in Poland, and I am pretty confident that only Poles speak Polish. But when we hear someone speaking English we can draw no such conclusions. It is a language nobody owns. Instead of being a badge of nationality, the ability to speak English has become a sign of aspiration….

Hitchens’s words are poignant for me, as an EFL teacher, because I see this “aspiration” first hand, not as an abstract. I’m not so sure Americans any longer have this sense of their own language (the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish do, as their proximity to, and business with, the European continent has always been tangible), perhaps for the simple reason that fewer immigrants arrive to its two shores as there once had seen waves of people seeking escape, asylum, and fortune — or merely opportunity.

Now that opportunity lies within their own borders, as Globalization and The Almighty Dollar and Cheap Travel has drawn people to English from any of the 6,900 languages used around the globe. Increasingly, as I travel Prague to teach English to engineers, accountants, lawyers, builders, financial advisers, scientists and HR managers, my awareness of the workings of English have been honed. This is partly because of the questions I’m asked (“Why are there so many prepositions, and how are they all used?” or “What’s the point of the ‘perfect’ tenses?”) and therefore need to ponder myself. Answering a student is never just about reciting the rule.

What I’ve discovered is that I’m learning far more about my language than I had realized. It surpasses the level of understanding that I gained about writing fiction once I began to teach fiction. This is a personal statement, and says little about what my students learn. Or not learn.

The ones who are serious about the language work hard; the ones who aren’t, don’t work hard.

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