The Decline of My English: Fly To Your Imagination With The Art

I speak like this, essentially.

Before I moved to Korea, I don’t think I ever really said the word “delicious.” I guess I always considered it a sort of cumbersome 10-cent word more easily replaced by its three cent cousins, by either more or less specific terms of taste and flavour. It was just an unnecessary word that existed in my lexicon, one just vague enough to be completely useless in regular conversation, and thus one I didn’t really use or care about. It could be stricken from my brain—incredibly particular and futuristic microsurgery used to scrape it from my very neurons—and I could have gotten by in the English world with little difficulty.

Now? Now, I say it at least once every day, and usually several times. Spending this far away from the English-speaking world has come to completely mutate how I speak and think about the language.

Not that Korea is some sort of wasteland of English. It is not a sort of post-apocalyptic dystopia, a scarred and blackened linguistic deathpit where articles wander around, dripping from their wounded, dropped limbs; where verbs confusedly stumble around in the wrong tense, soaked in gore and poor syntax; where punctuation is more valuable than water, and just as scarce. People in Korea do speak English, more or less. But how they speak it is altered by Korean grammar, by Korean words.

Delicious (맛있다) is said almost constantly in Korean, and in order to convey their opinions about food, most people learn the most direct equivalent in English. Koreans talk constantly about deliciousness, and will ask others, and me, about its presence or absence, its relative levels, where it might be found in the greatest abundance. And despite my brain physically reacting against this word with the kind of violence approaching it simply blasting out the back of my skull and riding away in a leather coat on a motorcycle, I use the word in everyday conversation, because it’s just easier.

And I do this for other things, too. I omit articles, and switch around my words, and simplify my sentences. I put away all of the five syllable words in my vocabulary, like toys from a long-forgotten childhood. I make it so that other people can understand me, and in turn my English has begun to simply become the edited form. My personal idiosyncracies atrophy, my wit willows down to the barest nub, and I manage English the way I manage on a pair of ice-skates (which is to say: the way a gorilla does).

More than that, though, my English has become the bizarro Korean Educational English which I am encouraged to teach, despite that no one actually speaks it. I’ve taught my kids stupid things that no one says so many times that I’ve come to start saying them myself, almost as a way to boil away the cognitive dissonance of convincing my charges that the things I teach them are worthwhile. When I’m with my friends, I’ll hand them something, and report, loudly and to their faces, “Here you are,” as though without my announcement of intent, they would have never known. Or, more horrifically, “This is for you.” I’ll ask them if they want dinner, but not like a person. Instead I’ll inquire, “How about going to eat food?” Where once saying “That’s too bad” came off as snarky and douchebaggy, it is now part of my regular vernacular, a genuine way to express regret. All of my irony has been drained out, as though by sarcasm vampires.

It’s a kind of English by way of a weird Korean robot. I now sometimes speak as though my own English thoughts pass through a few Korea-produced English language textbooks before leaving my articulators. To others it carries the nascent structure of English, a perfectly acceptable grammar–but the lingering hint of artificiality. I speak like maybe I learned English third-hand while underground on Mars, or like maybe I don’t actually possess vocal cords and lips, but simply clanking bronze orifices and space-age vibrating polymers.

One day, a coworker approached me about helping her develop some promotional phrases to go along with some educational art programs. If we constructed the best turn of phrase, she reported, we would get a prize. She wanted to consult with me to make sure the English made sense, as once you branch into the fluffier world of inspirational catch phrasing, English can very quickly go off the rails and simply shred itself into Jabberwockian nonsense.

While I was able to talk her down from a few flights of fancy (“Fly to your imagination with the Art!”), there were times when the things I came up with were barely any better. Articles didn’t seem to fit into their places, like suddenly warped and water-stained jigsaw pieces. Words screamed to be pluralized, but then didn’t look right afterwards. Every time I reassembled the clauses into a different sentence, they became each more glaring. Who wrote this crap? I could recognize that they were off, but I didn’t know how, and more importantly, I had no idea how they emerged from my own brain. Do I even know how to speak the language anymore?

There are times when I feel like I don’t. There are times when the entire language begins to feel alien on my tongue, like bizarre honking noises I make with my food-intake valves that are a base approximation of human speech. You know when you say a word one hundred times over and it stops sounding like a word? For me, that’s what all of English becomes in those times: bizarre monkey words that hoot and leap from my mouth, bleats and screams I hope that someone, somewhere, will interpret as being meaningful communication.

But luckily enough, it’s happened to most of the people I know, as well. They can barely speak anymore themselves, and even when they are aware of how obtuse and formal we are starting to sound, they can only look at me with frustration. We know we’re not speaking actual English anymore, but damned if we can remember what English sounds like.

The greatest depth of English I can now understand.

25 thoughts on “The Decline of My English: Fly To Your Imagination With The Art

    • It sort of has to come up in conversation, but at least amongst my friends and I now:

      “This is very delicious.” “Is that very delicious?” “How delicious is that?” “Does that have deliciousness?” “Oh, I’ve eaten there. It’s not very delicious.” “Is it very delicious there?”

  1. This is so true and so good. After living with 7 Japanese students my first year of college I was definitely doing all of the above. But the fact that it’s actually wrong in the textbooks cracks me up!

  2. This is part of the reason I actively REFUSE to teach something that’s incorrect or even awkward. Or, more accurately, I’ll teach, “This is what your book wants you to say. Memorize it; it will be on the test. Now, this is what people actually say.” My students made a bit of a game out of spotting errors and unnatural turns of phrase in the text and other situations. I cringe when a co-teacher says something we’ve covered as being incorrect, because I know the students are judging them. 😛

    I try to avoid ‘delicious’ and ‘very’ as much as possible, but I’ve completely adopted ‘shall’ into my working lexicon. And ‘quite’. I think they’re quite nice words. ^_^ I mostly feel like that’s acceptable, though, because some native English speakers (Brits, Australians, etc.) actually *do* use those words quite frequently.

    • I typically do the same, but after so long teaching the dumb stuff even just for the test, it has seeped into my brain. Indeed, shall has also become a regular part of my vernacular, but I feel like sometimes it makes me sound pretentious.

  3. I spent a semester teaching English in China, and the exact same thing happened to me. I learned very quickly that when someone asked me “How are you?” I needed to reply “I’m fine, thanks! And you?” or else I would be greeted with the terrified eyes of a child who realized that they actually don’t speak English at all. I also inexplicably started adding the word “Maybe” to almost all my sentences. “Maybe I think….” “Maybe I am…” It took a while for me to be able stop speaking in broken sentences and using insane amounts of hand gestures when talking. In good news this blog is so well written I would never guess you were losing your grasp on the English language.

    • I’mfinethanksandyou is also alive and well in Korean English. I usually ban it if my kids say it, or I demand they explain why they are fine.

      We don’t use a lot of maybes, but “As you know” has come into my vernacular (usually it is said just before something I do not actually know.)

      • UGH I hate ‘as you know’, and even more I hate ‘as I know’ when someone’s trying to tell me something they’ve heard from somewhere. So for example, where the natural English sentence would be, “I’ve heard she’s going to Bali next year,” or, “I think she’s going to Bali next year,” or “I believe…,” “I suspect….,” and so on…

        One of my co-teachers ALWAYS says, “As I know, she’s going to Bali next year.” and “As I know, maybe we don’t have class today.” What does that mean?!?! Ugh it drives me insane! ><

        • As you know is my greatest enemy, because it seems to put me at fault for not knowing. “As you know, we have a schedule change, and class starts in thirteen seconds.” As I know, because you have just given me this information.

  4. Your experience editing sloppy slogans reminded me of some sage advice given to me by my boss at my first marketing job in Korea. He was a seasoned, 16 year veteran of living and working here, having started his own PR firm and directed numerous high-level projects. He said: “When you get a piece of writing that doesn’t quite makes sense, read it, get the gist of it, then throw it away and start over.” His point was that is is more difficult, time consuming and hair graying to edit poorly written English into something acceptable than it is to just rewrite the whole damn thing.

    • I think this is certainly true, especially when you get into the realm of more flowery language. My issue was that even when I was producing new sentences, they were coming out just as Konglishy and bizarre as the ones my coworkers were generating.

      • Oh gosh, I relate to this. I was trying to explain to my co-teacher that amusement parks don’t have a “Home for Missing Children”. I knew what it was trying to say, but I’m still not sure how to translate that into real English?? I changed it to “Center for Missing Children”, but that still sounds strange to me.

        • Haha, it’s like you lose the entire inherent knowledge of how the language works after a while. We spend so long working to correct this stuff that it starts to just carry the ring of English, and that’s often enough.

  5. So funny, SUF. It is interesting how our English changes after time Someplace Else. My best friend told me, “You talk like a muppet now”. Intriguing. You’ve inspired me. I need to try to express myself about my own English turning into English directly (and incorrectly) translated from French. Example, why now do I find myself saying, “Oh we could pass the weekend in Basse-Terre and profit from the green side of the island”?? Really? Anyway, what’s wrong with being like a Muppet.

  6. I stumbled across your blog recently, and it has been one of the happiest blog discoveries in my history. Your words roll deliciously through my head and make me laugh. I love this post especially; you perfectly describe the mounting insecurities of speaking English when nothing sounds right anymore.

  7. It’s good to overanalyze how you speak English.

    If the commenters here did that, we would become too shy after noticing how inarticulate we really sound.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s