Why I love English (and other ESL musings)

Door mux op zondag 16 december 2018 10:15 - Reacties (10)
Categorie: Filosofisch gezwam, Views: 6.177

Let's fall with the door in house*: I'm born and raised Dutch, lived in the Netherlands for all my life in a single language household. Apart from mandatory French, German and English language classes in our sort-of equivalent of high school, I have never seriously taken any formal language or anthropology or anything related to what I'm about to talk about. But as with most things in life; experts aren't born out of formal education, they're the product of intense fascination with a subject. For me, the English language - and the entirety of differences and relationships between English and Dutch - is one of those fascinations.

(*) Oh, and that weird sentence I started this blog with? We'll get to that. I'm not mad. Well, I am, but not in that way.

Dutch is practically English

If anybody with formal training in linguistics is reading this, you will be wholly unsurprised by me saying that English and Dutch are two very closely related languages. Languages are a lot like animals; they evolve through various forms of 'genetic drift', growing together through mutual interaction and evolving away from each other through isolation. English and Frisian are very closely related, having come from a relatively recent common ancestor Anglo-Frisian language just a few hundred years ago. Dutch and Anglo-Frisian in turn share a common ancestor in the West Germanic languages around Roman times. But while a fair number of languages have had similar amounts of time to grow quite far apart, geography and empire made sure that the English and Dutch were warring, trading and interbreeding vehemently. This kept languages quite close, especially as the most related languages were standardized in both empires (instead of e.g. Celtic or Norse languages in Great Britain).

Today - excluding creoles, dialects and pidgins - it is generally considered in language learning circles that Dutch is the easiest language to learn for a person with English as their first language. Likewise, English is by far the easiest language to learn as a Dutch-speaking person. But this isn't necessarily because of the linguistic closeness - German is 'genetically' closer in some respects. You thought this was going to be a clear-cut blog? Pff..

Languages are not taught very well in schools
So, here's a huge gripe I have with language learning. I attended what's called a 'gymnasium' in Dutch - no, not a sports hall and not a place to be nude in, although those are both arguably more correct interpretations than what I mean here. Gymnasia in the Netherlands are schools attended by approx. 12-17 year olds that feature a predominantly theoretical curriculum - very little in the way of crafts and technical skills - preparing the pupils for a university education. In addition, a Gymnasium requires pupils to follow Greek and/or Latin courses. Schools that don't require classical language courses are called 'Atheneum' and Gymnasium and Atheneum are collectively known as VWO, our version of prep school. Universities, by the way, are also quite different from the Anglosaxon model; whereas we also have a bachelor-master system, universities are only about the top-2% of education, with most of what is known as 'university' or 'college' in the English-speaking world actually being called 'HBO' here. This is very confusing to people inquiring about the Dutch education system.

Wait, what gripe did I have with language learning? I started off with that sentence, and then trailed off in a treatise of higher education in the Netherlands. Well, this only goes to show that two literally identical words in English and Dutch - gymnasium and university - refer to entirely different institutions. Not a little bit; dig a bit deeper and the entire inner workings of universities in the Netherlands and other countries are so far apart that I can't really fathom why they're still called the same. Yet, when we teach little kids a new language, we often start with grammar, vocabulary and speech. No - actually, that part is fine. We don't just start - the middle and end is still that. Languages are taught as if they are pure means of communication, ways to convey bits of language-agnostic meaning from one person to the other. This is only true for the bare minimum application of language, though. Can I borrow a cup of sugar? What is the time? How do I get to Lancaster Avenue?

This is the 'tourist model' of language, and it majorly sucks balls (an expression you won't learn in school). It will get you only to a point where you can be a hapless tourist in a foreign country. What I want to propose in this blog - and this is actually not that controversial in linguistics - is that language is an expression of culture first and foremost. That is - you can't speak a language without understanding the underlying culture very well and you can't expect to understand a culture without speaking the language. And this goes incredibly far.

You are a shit English speaker. Oh, also, all white people are racist. Make America Great Again.

I'm only going to talk about that first sentence, but the other two aren't just English sentences. If those sentences ring a bell with you, you will most likely have a mental image of a modern feminist or Black Lives Matter advocate in your head while reading that second sentence, and the image of some kind of sentient nacho-coloured flock of seagull haircut that is a president of an actual country when you read that last sentence. Why? Seriously consider the immense weight of cultural context that just four words can have. Not just that; depending on where you fall on the political spectrum you may experience very strong emotions when reading such words. And these emotions, this context, it taints all the words around it.

So... those are just words. Now imagine somebody with a pronounced lisp reading any of those sentences. How has your perception changed? What about a fat person? What if I told you that Bernie Sanders unironically proclaimed 'make America great again'. Oh also, I'm now talking about political things happening in a country I've never been in and don't natively speak the language of.

Now, I assume by now you are either very bored with somebody telling you what you already know - namely that language is not just letters, words, grammar and sounds - or your mind is blown. The meaning of everything in every language is incredibly heavily tainted by culture. And culture changes all the time. None of those politically charged statements I made earlier would have made any sense 5 years ago, yet I bet that almost everybody in the entire world will understand some or all of what I just conveyed.

And the internet, well, it's full of language on steroids. You think you speak English? Try visiting some subreddits for the first time, like Destiny or the_donald and - if you're not familiar with them already - genuinely ask yourself with every headline whether you understand what it says. It's English - if you can read and understand this blog, you can understand the words in those subreddits. But I guarantee that you'll be missing the cultural baggage necessary to truly comprehend what's being said in those subreddits. This is how languages are born; they isolate and specialize. For all intents and purposes, the internet is full of new languages - or subcultures if you like - that share English words but not meanings.

Holy shit

Just as an aside, consider the heading of this paragraph with or without an exclamation mark. So far for this intermission of trivia.

I'm 31 years old now. Somewhere around my 13th birthday, I was already quite technically proficient in English. This was mainly due to the burgeoning Internet as well as subtitled television and film, but of course even then, I must have had a bit of an obsession with language. Being socialized in an environment where boys should do engineering, I never really had a true opportunity to develop this further, but I always had a focus on Engish language learning in my free time.

Languages - at that time in my personal development - seemed like a thing you learned linearly and then you were done. You get familiar with the grammar rules and then you work on your vocab and pronunciation and you're done. I'd be done when I was 20! Then I could start on different languages, like Turkish and Chinese - which seem like very handy languages to learn these days.

But every interested hour I spent on reading, speaking and learning I find that English is a bit of an iceberg of a language. Everybody can master the tip, but there's a mountain to scale (or in this analogy: dive down into) if you want to truly become indistinguishable from a native speaker. English is one of those languages that, through interaction with Europe and the former English colonies, has accrued a massive amount of weird and wonderful vocabulary. In fact, I'd say that English has to be one of the wordiest languages alive today. Compared to Dutch, I have such a wealth of words to choose from to express myself - or should I say a plethora? There are meaningful ways you can mangle - ahem modify - sentence structure to bring completely new meanings to identical words. And centuries of oral and musical practice have brought ways of expressing yourself even more broadly, by way of repeating, leaving out, substituting or abbreviating words. Cockney rhyming slang is one of the most well-known out of those things.

And the metaphors. Oh, how English has a lot of expressions, each of which with its own (sub)cultural context - which has often been remixed through the years. You can spend a decade writing blogs and not even have covered a tenth of the available language space there.

So this is the core of my fascination. I genuinely think English is the greatest language around today. It's of course very personal, but I find my brain almost defaulting to English when trying to express difficult or nuanced ideas. And so, after this entire blog praising a language I don't natively speak you'd expect me to be proficient.

But I'm not. I have a pronounced Dutch accent (that gets worse when I'm tired), I often have problems finding the right words or expressions and even after all these years I mix my US and UK spelling. But most of all, and my driving force behind my continued obsession with language: I keep learning new things every day. Linguists love to dive into the weird and obscure languages of the world and point out that there are hundreds of entirely unique languages spoken in the jungles of Borneo. My head spins thinking about taking on that kind of task. I'm struggling with just English, and I'm loving every bit of it!