Every day that passes being an English teacher makes me more and more grateful that I don’t have to go through the horrible process of learning the English language in all its complexities. Most days it seems like there are more exceptions than there are rules. Take this nasty little collection of letters /ough/ and read all of the following words – cough, through, tough, though, plough and then be grateful that if you’re an English speaker you probably just picked all the different sounds it could possibly equate to by simply growing up in an English speaking environment. My favourite thing I’ve read recently is the following : if you put ‘only’ anywhere in this sentence then it means something entirely different every time – ‘She told him that she loved him’. What a terrible terrible language the little island I call home created.
On the whole, I’m really interested in language. I enjoy learning where it comes from and how it changes and how different people use it. I suppose English has earned a lot of its complexities from all the people we borrowed (and continue to borrow) it off. And then, which in my opinion is one of the greatest things about Britain, come the dialects. Each village has its own spin on the norm and fat chance of a Cockney ever really understanding what a broad Geordie is saying – and vice versa. That thing you hear on the BBC when you’re sat in the comfort of your own home, outside of the UK, is actually what a very small percentage of the country sounds like. I tried teaching my boyfriend (he’s Taiwanese) a little bit of cockney, a little bit of Yorkshire and a little bit of Geordie, since I am blessed with having a slice of each identity, and his reaction was first amazement, then motivation to master then, then despair, and the matter was put to rest.
And if that isn’t enough proof that English is a bit difficult, then address the fact that I regularly have to give translations to my North American friends and they regularly have to offer them to me. That’s right, even once you’ve got past the accents, there’s just some things that are simply lost in the translation from English to English.
My best friend, a Canadian, moved to London a couple of days to follow her dreams of taking over the world with food as her weapon. Within less than 24 hours into her arrival she asked me why people were asking her if she was okay all the time. ‘You okay?’ is simply a greeting in England, not necessarily people asking you what is wrong. I then pointed out that I must have said this to her pretty often when we lived together in Hong Kong, to which she replied, ‘Yes, but I thought you thought I was upset a lot’.
How many words for trainers are there in the English language? Trainers, sneakers, runners, kicks. Probably a lot more. That whole fries and chips and crisps thing is all round incredibly confusing and Americans seem to see endless humour in the fact that we Brits call it a ‘jacket potato.’ In fairness, I don’t know why we do that.
I personally find a lot of enjoyment in the fact that an American girl I work with, in an effort to take on some British slang, confuses ‘taking the piss’ for ‘giving the piss’.
In the past few years, I’ve learned a lot of new language myself – not necessarily reserved to foreign ones.