The English language

I have always enjoyed teaching English — especially freshman English — for many of the same reasons I love the English language in the first place: Students invariably introduce me to new ways of using (read: abusing) or interpreting the language. This has been true everywhere I’ve taught, regardless of demographic, though I admit I had more fun in Texas because Texans — who believe they live in “a whole other country” — often speak a different language than English. The regional dialects vary (linguists will tell you there are at least five distinct dialects in Texas), but the language itself is largely the same: A weird variation of English with heavy influences from the deep South, the Cajun of neighboring Louisiana, the “hillbilly” dialects from the Arkansas Ozarks, southwestern accents, and a combination of New Mexican Spanish, true Mexican Spanish, and “Tex-Mex” Spanish. Consequently, I would have students routinely and consistently swap spellings of “fill” and “feel,” “sale” and “sell,” or — incorrectly — “could have” and “could of,” because they spell according to pronunciation; or I would see proudly intentional uses of the double conditional, as in “I might could of made it to class today if it hadn’t of snowed a quarter inch.”

But my favorite moments occur with genuine non-native speakers, because it is from them that I both learn more about English and discover new possibilities in English. They feel freer to experiment, and they frequently stumble across beautiful phrases. This is similar to my own experiences in a foreign language: As an undergraduate studying French, I was most praised — and won the “French student of the year” award — when writing poetry in French. I was neither a good poet nor a great French student (my conversational French was less than adequate), but turned loose in another language, I discovered a capacity for play and imagery that I found impossible in English, and my French professor adored my work.

Similarly, I have always loved the compositions of my non-native speakers, and now, teaching a class full of only non-native speakers (all are native Arabic speakers), I am delighting in the expressions and explanations of my students. For instance, the other day I learned — from my students, during a class discussion — that one of the most common grammatical errors they commit is the comma splice. They know this, yet they continue to fall into the error, because — as my students explained — they are translating from Arabic, and in Arabic, is it perfectly acceptable (perhaps necessary; I’m still learning the ins and outs of Arabic) to connect separate ideas with a phrase similar to “and, and.” In Arabic, this signals a transition from one idea to another and so both connects and separates them, something akin to the semicolon in English but far more prevalent. Therefore, according to my students, the most logical translation is to link ideas with a comma, and they frequently forget about the period.

And then there are the constructions of syntax and the poetics of expression they casually drop into e-mails. Just today, for instance, a student e-mailed me a list of people she’d like to work with in small groups. One of her requests, she said, was based on her classmate’s advanced understanding of the English language, but my student’s means of explaining this was, “I can feel the strength of her language.”

I can feel the strength of her language.

I love that she has made language into a tangible thing, something we can touch and flex, like a muscle — something we can literally “grasp.” I love that she has made language into an atmosphere, something we can get a sense of, like emotion or tension filling a room, or like an odor (something else we describe as “strong”). And I love that she has an awareness of other students’ grasp of language in comparison to her own. Native speakers back in the States frequently acknowledge the “good writers” in their classes as simply talented or smart, and either cleave to them in hopes of getting a better grade or distance themselves to avoid looking like “bad writers” in comparison. The same is likely true among non-native speakers as well, but it is refreshing to see in this student’s e-mail an expression not only of genuine admiration (the e-mail goes on to say, “I like the way she expresses her ideas, which I recognize in class”) but also of a desire to learn from her fellow student (“She is an interesting person to work with”).

I think I might repeat these phrases to my students in class today: “I can feel the strength of your language. I like the way you express your ideas. You are all interesting people to work with!”

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