Introduction to English XXI

I am writing a series of essays, or blogs, on the subject of the English language in the 21st century. In this opening essay I will provide some background on myself and describe my qualifications for being an authority on English. I will describe what it is that motivates me to write about English, and why I feel it is important to keep the flame burning for preserving our language.

I am in my seventh decade now. In my sixty-plus years I have been to a lot of places and experienced much. I have lived in about ten states here in the U.S., from such disparate places as Englewood, NJ and Pearl Harbor, HI. I have resided in three foreign countries and travelled to about forty-five nations.

I had an early introduction to other cultures and languages. In 1956 my father, a career Marine Corps officer, was sent for a tour of duty to France. We lived just a short drive from Versailles, in the western suburbs of Paris. Even though I was very young, that time in Europe had a profound effect on my intellectual development.

When living in France I got my first exposure to a foreign language. We lived in a military compound and my brother and I went to a school for expatriates where all the instruction was in English. Nevertheless, I had plenty of opportunities to learn some French. I recall an elderly lady who was my babysitter on many occasions. I did not learn to speak French fluently, unfortunately, but my brain was still being programmed for language, and that was an essential phase for developing a “knack” for foreign languages.

When we returned to the U.S. my experience in France started to fade, and I became immersed in the more traditional cultural environment of middle class America. Except for a few after-school French classes when I was in the fourth grade, I just let the French exposure slowly erode until it has like a distant dream.

Things changed when my father was sent for a tour of duty to Hawaii. This was in the mid-1960s, and as chance would have it I had the opportunity to attend one of the premiere private schools in the U.S. I went to Punahou School for ninth and tenth grades. That is the same school Barack Obama would go to and graduate from. According to my calculations, President Obama arrived one year after I left.

There were countless things that were special about Punahou. There was one that was particularly important to me. My academic advisor told me I had to choose a foreign language when I was registering for tenth grade. French would have been the natural choice, right? Well, I opted for Spanish instead. I can’ explain my choice, but it is what I went with. I can still see the face of my first Spanish teacher as clearly as if I had just come from school today. Señora George was an immigrant from Cuba, who had apparently married an American soldier who was sent to Hawaii.

Señora George either didn’t speak much English or she totally bought into the progressive language philosophy that was accepted by Punahou. That philosophy was based on total immersion as the best way to get a strong start on a foreign language. The few times Señora George spoke English, as far as I can remember, it was hard to follow her. We watched slide shows, listened to tapes, and repeated dialogues over and over. One of the lines stuck in my head, and I remember it even today. It involved a dialogue between two students travelling around Madrid. One of them gets on a crowded bus and states, “Francamente, no aguanto tener que viajar como sardinas en lata.” Translation – “Frankly, I can’t stand to travel like sardines in a can.”

I went into that course a doubting Thomas, but I came out at the end with the best Spanish accent of anyone in the class. After decades of thinking about it, I realized what had happened. My time in France had given me the cognitive programming I needed to pick up a foreign language. Many years later I would read about language development and learn that children go through a period of programming for language that lasts until puberty. Something happens at about that time, and we stop that programming.

I would go on to study Spanish for years. I even chose Spanish as my major in undergraduate school at the University of Virginia. This helped me with one of my most important life lessons. When you are good at something, stay with it because you can make great progress. That is a huge element in the reinforcement of learning. I understand that there are other things that can reinforce learning as well. In my case I went with what worked for me. I have proved my success many times through the years. The statement I have heard countless times over the last forty years when I was speaking Spanish with a native speaker is something like this:  “You look like an American, but you sure don’t sound like one. Where are you from, anyway?”

You might be wondering what all of this has to do with English. I am going to get to that now. My years of studying and practicing Spanish forced me to learn more about English. When I had to conjugate Spanish verbs in the present perfect and the past subjunctive, I had to equate those to verb forms in English. When I learned new adjectives, prepositions, gerunds and modifiers in Spanish, I had to make sense of them in terms of English also.

Many years later, I was truly put to the test in my own, native English. I was going to school to get my doctorate and needed a work routine that would permit me to both do research and make some income. I happened upon a job as an ESL – English as a Second Language – instructor, and I ended up working in that profession for over five years. I also did translation and editing work in Spanish and English. Another of my fundamental life’s lessons is this – if you want to really learn a subject deeply, teach it.

For five years I taught English, and it wasn’t enough to tell my students, “That’s just the way it is in English.” I had to explain everything to my students. If there was something I didn’t completely understand, I had to find out what the reason was and explain it.

All of this time I was increasing my knowledge of the English language. I should also add here that I have been an avid reader all my life. Some of my earliest memories are of my father reading to me at bedtime. He would read me a story while I listened and looked at the illustrations. Some of those stories, which I have not heard for more than fifty years, are still familiar to me. Naturally, I developed an interest not only in reading, but in books as well. Listening to stories, and then reading books on my own, would instill in me a deep desire for books and a great appreciation of imagination.

I wish that when I was a little older, around high school age, I had kept a log of all of the books I read. By the time I finished high school, the number had to have been in the hundreds. As the old expression goes (roughly), I have forgotten about more books that most people have read.

All of the reading, and the language study (which includes formal instruction in Italian, German and Portuguese in addition to the Spanish) for the last sixty years or so have turned me into something of a language freak. This is particularly true when it comes to English. Every time I read something, and every time I hear someone speak, I notice the use of English. This is especially true in oral communications. I assume that when works are published, for the most part, that the authors are at least somewhat proficient in the language. I notice mistakes or inconsistencies, but those things are not very common.

It is a completely different story when it comes to oral communication. The deterioration of the average person’s ability to clearly communicate his/her ideas is nothing short of shocking. I have gotten to the point that when I hear someone speak, whether that is a sales associate at a department store or a so-called pundit on one of the cable news shows on television, I focus on two things. The first is the subject matter, and the second is the ability of the speaker to effectively communicate using English. Sometimes I focus so much on the latter that I lose interest in the former.

In a manner of speaking my close attention on a person’s communications skills is a curse (although I don’t believe in curses per se), because it means that my language monitor is on all day, every day. Every time a person uses a filler, I notice. Every time a person switches perspective in the middle of a sentence, I notice. Every time someone uses a misplaced modifier, I notice. Do I need to say more to make my point?

It is important that I state something else at this point. I do not expect everyone to use the best possible English grammar in every instance. I understand that English is a difficult language with countless grammatical pitfalls. There are times when I have doubts and have to look up something. I know that in our educational system in the U.S. we do not spend enough time reinforcing the elements of good verbal skills. I also know that languages evolve over time, and that some rules, even steadfast ones, may need to be updated by new ones.

However, we cannot simply let the language just randomly drift in any direction. There must be some rules that are maintained. If that doesn’t happen, then at some point we might say that ‘anything goes.’ If anything goes, then at some point the meaning of words, and the construction of phrases, clauses and sentences will lose their meaning. Then, how will we communicate our ideas clearly? What would happen to civilization as we know it, if we can’t communicate our ideas?

In these essays I will mostly discuss the problems that I notice. These are not isolated problems, rather they are problems that are becoming ubiquitous. Some people who read these essay are going to think I’m being overly picky, or old-fashioned, or that I sound like an old codger who would prefer to revert to the past. I don’t believe any of those things are the case. My objective is to ensure that we maintain the essential ingredients of our English language so that we can be efficient communicators. I hope you find my essays informative and even entertaining at times.

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