April 23 is UN English Language Day and it’s a reminder of how weird the English language actually is. There’s no ham on a hamburger… go figure. There’s no-one there but their annoying dog… say again? One box and two boxes, one ox and two oxen… weird. Dough, plough, cough… that’s not even close to rhyming.
I have a confession to make. I am a bit of an English snob. I blame it on my past life as an English teacher, but although that career may be in the past, the condition I have is terminal. You see, I’m one of those people.
You know the ones: They correct you when you mispronounce a word. They underline misspelt words in library books just for the sake of it. They post photos on Instagram of advertising material that misuses apostrophes and confuses homonyms and they share memes on Facebook that lament the poor state of the nation’s grammar. Yes, I have to confess, I’m an English language snob and, up until recently, I had taken pride in that fact.
While I’m all for high standards, I had a bit of a reality check recently that put things in perspective.
- I am not infallible. When I wrote an article that was published a short time ago that contained an obvious spelling mistake, it was rather embarrassing, but it helped me admit that, although I have homonyms (and homophones and homographs) down pat, I get confused between Australian and American spelling on a regular basis and I basically have no idea whether I should be using an em dash, a comma or parentheses in any particular sentence.
- A discussion with an acquaintance who speaks English as her second language finally humanised this snobby pet peeve that I have. You see, when Stephanie* spoke, she didn’t stick to the normal conventions. When she sent me a text message later, her spelling and sentence structure were slightly off — even for a casual text. But do you know what I learnt? Stephanie speaks three languages! And she has a university degree.
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One generous helping of humble pie coming right up! While I’m quick to judge errors as a reflection of intellect or attitude, could it be that the English language is just difficult to master?
English fast facts
- The English language is basically the union of bits and pieces of the German, Nordic, Latin, French and Greek languages over thousands of years; it therefore seriously lacks consistency in many of its rules and conventions.
- English is the third most-common native language in the world. It is the first language of about 300-400 million people, but that is still only about 5 per cent of the world’s population.
- English is the most-published language in the world and is considered the lingua franca of our era (i.e. it is the main bridging language used for business and to communicate between people not sharing a language).
- It is estimated that over 1 billion people speak English as a second language.
- There are more words in the English language than any other language and yet it is one of the only mainstream languages that doesn’t have a regulatory academy to approve spelling.
As you can imagine, my eyes were opened and my compassion was stirred. There are apparently a lot of compelling reasons for why people struggle with English.
The rules are not straightforward
- “I was a straight-A student at school, but I still have no idea how to spell. Thank goodness for spellcheck.” — Chaz, 27, Byron Bay
- “I always get confused with where to put the apostrophe. It is too hard to keep all the rules straight in my head.” — Jamie, 30, Logan
Language is only one element of communication
- “My husband and I both speak English, but sometimes we might as well be speaking Japanese. We had a fight over the meaning of the word ‘distinguished’ one day.” — Jenny, 39, Wagga Wagga
- “I accidentally sent a Japanese tourist to the closest restroom instead of a car rental place because I thought he was saying toilet instead of to let.” — Mariana, 22, Gold Coast
The English language is constantly evolving
- “My grandma just shakes her head when I speak to her because she doesn’t like how disrespectful I sound. I just speak like everyone else I know, but I think it has changed a bit since she was young.” — Jasmine, 19, Brisbane
English as a second language
If native English speakers spend at least 12 years at school learning this language and they can’t master it, how difficult must it be for non-native speakers to pick up?
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- “It is easy to learn ‘good enough’ English, but really hard to learn ‘proper’ English.” — Sioban, 33, originally from Russia.
- “The mismatch between spelling and pronunciation was the biggest frustration I faced learning English as a second language.” — Jorge, 24, from Greece
- “I thought I was prepared before I came to Australia because I learnt English at school. When I arrived, it was much more informal, many more variations and much faster than what I learnt.” — Candy, 28, from China.
- “I learnt to speak English quite quickly, but I don’t think I’ll ever master writing in English. That is just weird.” — Samuel, 38, from Indonesia.
Weird. Yep, that pretty much sums it up.
April 23 is UN English Language Day and, while it is tempting for me to sit on my high horse and poke fun at those who don’t quite meet my standards, this year, I’m waving a white flag and admitting that English is a complex language that even I haven’t mastered yet. Instead, I’m choosing to simply celebrate and appreciate the English language… weirdness and all.