English - It was like that when I got here

old stone tower
But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out on the sea.
J.R.R. Tolkien

From time to time, it is suggested to me that I go into business as a private ESL (English as a second language) tutor, and, at last, make a year-round, living income. I find it easy to resist this suggestion for a couple of reasons.

One is a bit daft, I suppose. I have no desire to work for anyone who can afford me. Queerer still, I can't help but feel that abandoning the poorest or most marginalized among us will somehow cost me my soul. I know we burn for only a short while, however brightly, in the midst of a great, enduring darkness. It matters to me how I live - I cannot put it more plainly than that.

The other reason is this: I do not know how to explain the art and beauty of English to non-native speakers. Our language is a construct that does not make any mechanical sense, and I do not want to be its ambassador.

"English spelling is notoriously difficult, and foreigners learning English are bewildered by the lack of correlation between spelling and pronunciation," writes G.L. Brooks in A History of the English Language, one volume of the Andre Deutsch The Language Library series. He reminds us that "for the last three centuries or so" [i.e., since the proliferation of the printing press and mass copies mechanically reproduced] "spelling has changed little whereas pronunciation is constantly changing." Indeed, in any given moment, there are a multitude of common words being pronounced differently depending on who is reading them. Just yesterday, listening to an audio book read by a citizen of the U.K., I heard "gaseous" (which I would pronounce Gass-See-us) pronounced Gay-See-us. And don't even get me started on that whole about - aboot thing, or the way they talk in New Joys-See.

But it's more than phonics that vexes people.

I grew up an Anglophone, speaking English, in the shadow of a Church of England building called St. Mark's Anglican Church. Though a Canadian by birth, I read the literature and history of England (as Britain came to be called after it became the land of the Angles) and took it all for granted. But just look at it! Engles and Angles, Englophone and Anglophone, Englican and Anglican, Angland and England: all this confusion caused by the apparently random use of "a" or "e" as a first letter! How do I explain this nonsense?

Then there are the confoundations of usage. One learner wanted to know the difference between "was awoken" and "was awakened." Another asked me to explain the difference between "further" and "farther." I have been asked about the distinction in meaning between "will" and "shall." Someone wanted to know when to use "I saw," and when to write "I had seen," or "I have seen." Each time, I needed to explain these things in simple English, to people uncomfortable with English.

Then, there's the notorious single-word dilemma. (Well, it ought to be notorious - whatever them reading experts say.) Even among native English speakers there are apt to be confusions when words appear outside of their natural context.

Consider b-a-s-s. Is it BAse, the musical instrument, or bASS, the fish? And does b-o-w mean a stick and taut string drawn across a bass fiddle (bOwe), or the fore of a boat or ship (Bow)? Is l-e-a-d an action performed by an orchestra conductor (leed), or is it a weight attached to a fishing line (led)? Well, tell me if we're in a performance hall or out on a lake, and I'll answer those questions. But without knowing the context, there is no way to know; just as there is no way to know if the sentence "I read the book" is set in the present or the past.

No, I do not enjoy explaining English to folks from away.

Mind you, I understand the cause of all this. Our English is built of one or several languages spoken somewhere in Europe before the written word. Wherever it was, we think they had honey and pine forests, snow and wolves and the bear. We think, at first, it was not near the sea. But that's all we know. Everything else is a mystery, or historians making stuff up.

In time, a form of this pre-English was rebuilt into the various languages of the Jutes, Saxons and Angles who lived on the lowland coasts of present day Holland and Germany. They brought this ancient English with them when they invaded the island of Britain about 400 AD. Though a few habits of expression were added on - borrowings from Scot-Celtic and Welsh, or from Latin - the language was relatively stable. Historians call the language of this period "Old English."

Under assault from the Danes (Vikings), from whom it borrowed other terms, and the Norman French, who added as many as 1000 new words, Old English became “Middle English." This rich, wordy English was very complex and confused even by our standards. But it was the foundation of the "Modern English" of the 1500s and 1600s, of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. "Modern”, but not yet standardized: that would not happen until the dictionaries and grammar books of the 1800s began imposing rules as part of a larger project of acculturating the children of non-English speaking immigrants. (Throw in the invention of the classroom blackboard, and modern schooling was born.)

Well, yes. A fun bit of history to be sure. But reciting it is of no use to the poor learner who only wants to know how to find order amidst the chaos. "Why?" they ask. "Because," I answer, "that's how English is." "It doesn't follow its own rules!" they complain. "I know," I say. "Maybe you could learn French."

Listen, it’s not my fault. It was like that when I got here.

And, you know, it's really not such a bad language. I know it’s a jumble of archaic and ill-matched bits descended from who knows where.

But there is a story Tolkien tells (a little differently than this), of a man who owned a field wherein lay stones of some long tumbled-down building. In fact, some of those stones had been used several times in ancient castles and keeps. Picking out the best, discarding any too badly worn or cracked, and fitting them together as best he could, the man built a tower. When he had passed on, his relatives came and saw the tower. They saw that the stones rarely matched, that the wind and rain passed through, that the walls were crooked and unsure, and decided the best thing to do was knock this unsightly tower down.

For unsightly it was. And yet, from that tower the man had been able to look upon the sea.

I love English. I have loved this crooked and unsightly language all my life.

But I don't love explaining it to people who come new to the language expecting, understandably, something much more modern, well-constructed and snug.

old tower


tracey.ca said...

Ha ha. I LOVE the title of this post. You perfectly describe the conversation happening daily in literacy programs all across the English-speaking parts of the world.

A couple (more?) of years ago I put together a comic book in the style of the beginner's guides about spelling and the history of English. I started with the idea that we could use it with students but it all got away from me. It is quite long and not fact-checked - revisions will be a project for a rainy day :P

You can see it here: http://www.literacyenquirer.ca/spelling.htm

Wendell said...

From Tracey's page: "Sometimes we talk a little about the history of English to try and cheer ourselves up."

Yes, exactly! Of course, that doesn't cheer my learners at all. They think I'm avoiding the issue - and they are right.

I need (insert: to go find) a good work workshop on ESL and Useful Things offered by someone who knows what a wreck our language is and loves it anyway.

Thks for the link Tracey. I'm on deep-in-the-woods dial-up for a bit, but I'll take a look as son as I get back to the city.


tracey.ca said...

One thing I found useful...

I was working with some people getting ready for college upgrading and they were pretty frustrated with the editing process. I was using the old chestnut "There is no good writing -- only good rewriting." I was trying to tell them that NObody can sort this stuff out the first time around and NObody can sort it out alone. And, of course, they did not believe me.

At the same time I was working on a book to go with a project we had been doing. I had just got a draft back from the copyeditor and it was covered in swirls of red pen and post it tabs. I showed it to the group. They were shocked and surprised. They wanted to know how I felt.

They still got frustrated but I think that they started to see that the mistakes they make are not because they are literacy students but because they are writers. In English.


Wendell said...

"At the same time I was working on a book..." Yay! It's so important that facilitators be writers as well as readers and learners.

One of the things I enjoy about blogging is that it allows me to model daily writing - including the struggle to find a word, or the right tense for a word. "What's that word for when something is..." I'm always asking them - not to test, but to write my own stuff.

And, of course, I always pick on the best speller in the room who, over the past few months has been Kathy. "Kathy," I'd ask, "how do you spell...." In fact, I did it so often, some of the other learners stopped asking me and went straight to her.

The other thing I share to cheer them up is that when Cheryl and I write a proposal or letter or whatever, we expect to spend an hour per page before it's been written, rewritten, proofed and corrected.

Actually, I'm not sure how many are cheered by that. :P