I’ve never really thought about or appreciated the language I was born with. In high school and university, I had a lot of boring, pretentious conversations about different languages, and English was usually filed pretty low in the rankings. French and Spanish were romantic, Indian languages earthy and exotic; Japanese, Korean, Mandarin all alluring and bewildering beyond measure. I liked these other languages because I didn’t speak them, and thus they were somehow more fascinating or special than my own gutter tongue. I would never put work into learning any of them, because that would require effort and forethought and dedication, and all that stuff was for losers. I was to be stuck a unilingual, with the most boring language of all.
As a Canadian child, I endured numerous years of government mandated French instruction, which I abandoned as soon as I was legally able to. It was hard to nurse fantasies of French as a mysterious, fluttering language from afar when I had to actually speak it every day, and learn about the gendering of various sexless objects. During those years in school, French was basically English’s uncool relative, who I had to visit and play with because my parents thought French would be a good influence on me. When I ditched it, French went back to being cool and aloof, and French speakers once again became silk-voiced soothsayers.
When I began to travel, the charm of foreign languages grew still greater. Fancy European people spoke Fancy European languages. They laughed and ate croissants and and fine cheeses straight from the teat, and drank wine by the riverside or downed immense tankards of stupendously good beer. They hopped on trains and were in other worlds, completely unlike their own, immersed in still other cool, refined languages. Britain and Ireland at least had wacky accents to make their English slightly more suave than my flat, newscastery Canadian usage. Still later in Asia, the languages seemed almost otherworldly, as though wrought under the boiling sun and passed through alternate dimensions before finally arriving in human people’s mouths. They used writing systems completely different from anything I knew, they wrote in different directions across their pages, and their words spilled out in orders that I didn’t think possible.
It was easy to think of languages acquisitively, like cool accessories to don and impress others with. Whatever few piddling morphemes I managed to learn in the various other tongues, I generally employed with delirious elan. I liked to think I was in with the locals in some way, colluding with them, even if they were both unaware and not really in any place to give a shit what I was doing or saying. I wanted to be worldly and special and not rely on the boring language I spoke pretty well.
Moving to Korea, being surrounded by a language that was not my own, at first propelled this to greater heights. My Korean study is still a work in progress, but every step I’ve managed has made me feel more independent, more global, and also more ecstatically full of myself. But English here is foreign and alluring, and moreover a symbol of status. People want to speak it, but not in a way similar to how I’ve ever really spoken it before.
It was only here that I started to notice how much I liked English.
On an average day, I interact thousands of English learners, both children and adults, and still others who aren’t really interested in English at all. My English, generally, is decimated from the way I usually speak it. I abandon huge swaths of my bountiful vocabulary, I utterly restructure my grammar, and I whittle away my meaning to the barest, bluntest points. I care about effective learning and communication with my students more than anything, so my English has spawned a more approachable sub-language. A Korean co-worker once asked me to speak at my regular pace, just to see how much she could catch of it. With trepidation, I spat out a flurry of English phonemes at about three-quarter speed, but stopped when her horror became too vivid. I speak a different kind of English language here, and just as often employ my laboured but economical Korean to do some of the communicative gruntwork.
Openly speaking whatever free-wheeling, fantastical sentences my brain could generate is something I had grown to take for granted. That others would understand my weird vocabulary, my whack sentence construction, my bizarro slang. That I could speak and be spoken to and not really worry about comprehension, and that I could speed and slur my words together until it was a phonetic mush and know that it would simply click for those around me.
I suddenly began to realize how valuable my English-speaking friends were. They were islands of comprehension where I never had to really think about my words, or carefully consider how I could pass along a message to them. My apartment grew to become an English oasis, where books, and movies, and music, and language all live. In there, I write out English in as fanciful and pretentious of tones as I desire. In there, everything makes sense in ways that I don’t even really need to think about.
English is in my brain. It’s what that internal voice in my head speaks; it’s the way I manage and process the world. It’s the language of the music I listen to, the books that I read, (many of) the people that I know and love. It’s the language that my mother read stories to me in. The language that I learned math, and science, and art in. The language that I learn other languages in. It flows from my mouth and hands without effort or care. I can make it do tricks in ways I can’t yet achieve in other tongues. With its ductility, I can mould, and contour, and forge words into strange new shapes and configurations. I can use it to make others happy, or sad, or want to laugh, and others can use it to do the same to me.
I’ve come to appreciate it in ways that I didn’t before, and also to appreciate what it means when others try to learn to speak it. To communicate to me in the language that is so comforting and easy to me, knowing that every flaw and error will be glaring. And how difficult it can be to try to speak outside of one’s own comfortable, safe, brain language. That my students, and many of my Korean friends, try it every day with me is amazing: as basically the only person they use English to speak to, they risk a lot of face and put in a great deal of effort, speaking to me in a language so different from their own. And in turn, I understand why they are so happy, so amazed, and so appreciative when I try to return the favour.
English may not always be pretty. It’s basically the monstrous CHUD-baby of a dozen European-language gang-bang. For the last few centuries its been rampaging around the globe like a juggetnaut, pilfering vocabulary and grinding other languages to dust in its mighty, destructive jaws. But English made up my first words, it will probably make up my last, and its made up a great deal of the ones in the middle. For all its faults, I’ve come to love this great lumbering ape of a language.