Tuesday 1 January 2008

On learning English

A correspondent from the Czech Republic asks a powerful question: 'How would you encourage English language learners at secondary and postsecondary schools; what do they have to be careful about and what joys can they expect when dealing with a language of some 2 billion speakers worldwide?'

I would say to them...

In a way, the question answers itself. English enables you to communicate with a third of the world's population, and that has to be a plus on the agenda of anyone with an international outlook. That third, moreover, is hugely diverse. English is present, as a first, second, or foreign language, in every country in the world. So, in using it as a tool, you have an unparallelled opportunity to explore the individuality of nations and peoples.

The metaphor of the tool is important. English is not a prism, through which you see others. It is a tool which enables you to have a close encounter with others. Culture is not wholly dependent on language, but it does need language to explain its uniqueness - an experience all travellers have had, as they watch, say, a local folkdance and wonder what it is all about.

However, the metaphor of the tool only goes so far, because you can change the character of the tool to suit your purposes. If you have adopted English as one of your languages, then you are able to adapt it - to take personal ownership of it. One of the great joys of making headway in a new language is that you can use it to talk about what you want to talk about - and if that means inventing new words, to express your local experience, then do not hesitate to invent them. Just translating the culture of your school and town into English - such as the names of localities and personalities - will immediately add dozens of new expressions. Don't restrict yourself to the words that are already in the dictionaries. English is yours now. The words and expressions you and your fellows invent today might be in the dictionaries of tomorrow, if they catch on.

You're doing nothing that hasn't already been done thousands of times before. New words were added to English within days of the first settlers arriving in America from Britain, and the same pattern has been observed in all countries where a community of users has evolved. What you find yourselves doing you will see being done elsewhere. So - to adopt the motto of the scouting movement - be prepared. Be prepared for linguistic diversity, change, playfulness, and creativity wherever you listen and look - on radio and television, in the press, literature, film, pop music, the internet... Develop a sense of the kind of English that is appropriate to particular circumstances - American, British, Australian..., informal, formal, literary..., scientific, religious, journalistic..., emails, chatrooms, blogs.... And make it your major aim to be so in control of your own English that you can vary it to suit the circumstances in which you find yourself. Your goal is not to learn English, but Englishes. The same principle applies to any language, of course, but it is particularly important in the case of English because of its global reach.

And use English in another way - as a means of appreciating the uniqueness and richness of your own language(s). The critic George Steiner once said, 'Is it not the duty of the critic to avail himself, in some imperfect measure at least, of another language - if only to experience the defining contours of his own?' I think that is exactly right. Each new language-learning experience tells us something about our own linguistic identity.

You ask if there is anything to be careful about. There is one big thing: to remember that a language spoken by 2 people is just as wonderful a creation as a language spoken by 2 billion. Never let your love-affair with English make you dismissive of your own language, lessen your concern for minority and endangered languages, or forget the extraordinary richness of the human linguistic tool-cupboard.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Crystal:

Thank you for your extensive contributions to linguistics. Namely, thank you for your Encyclopedia of Linguistics. I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it, and recently purchased it!

You made an interesting statement above, that cultures are not wholly reliant on language. That stuck out, because I had always believed that language was the mother of culture. That civilized living wouldn't exist without it. Or, for that matter, any living. Parents teach their children not only behavior, but beliefs, rituals, survival, etc, whether human or animal.

Think of how wild Helen Keller had been before finally learning some form of language, or how wild children who have been discovered in the wilderness could not learn culture. There would be no degree of control or progress in any nuclear structure without language.

See you in cyberspace!

DC said...

I guess this comes down to what we all mean by culture - one of the most difficult terms to define. If culture means everything in our life experience, as you seem to be suggesting, then plainly there is a great deal we learn that is not dependent on language - sense experiences that are 'beyond words', for instance. There was nothing linguistic about my first encounter with a tropical rainstorm. I just got wet. Of course language is a defining feature of being human; but not everything in our humanity is dependent on language. Toothache hurts the same, whether you are Helen Keller, a wolf-child, or a linguistic virtuoso.

It's an interesting question, which no-one has yet answered (maybe it is unanswerable) how much of our cultural experience is dependent on language and how much is not. But in my post I wasn't thinking so much of culture in that very general sense, but of cultural distinctiveness - that's why I used the word 'uniqueness' and talked about exploring 'individuality'. In a nutshell: How much of the French language expresses something that is distinctively French? For example, how many French words are there which can't be easily translated, because they seem to express something unique to French culture? Or, for that matter, American English words that don't translate into British English? I don't know the answer to that.