“I just don’t get these ESL students.”
I looked up from the essay I was grading, unable to ignore what I’d just heard. Having taught ESL for so long made me perhaps a bit maternal and overprotective of those I thought of as “my students.”
“Why don’t they understand grammar?”
He was an older man, a fellow adjunct in the English department, and he taught the same remedial writing classes as I did that semester. I’d encountered him before at these test scoring sessions, and based on the conversations we had at the table, he seemed reasonably intelligent and well-read.
“I mean, it’s all the same, isn’t it? Well, except for the vocabulary.”
Wait…what? Did he mean that? No, no, I must have misunderstood. It’s not possible that an educated professor of English could have such a profound misunderstanding of how language works. Could he?
“For example, word order is subject-verb, right? If they can do that in their own language, why can’t they figure that out in English?”
He could. I just couldn’t sit there anymore and be silent. Frankly, I was a little surprised that I made it this far without whimpering in pain. I began to explain that other languages do, indeed, have different grammar; that not every language follows a subject-verb-object word order; that in fact, some languages even include subject and objects in affixes on the verb itself!
He seemed completely baffled and unconvinced. And I had even watered it down for him.
How do people become so misinformed about language? And worse, why are they so unwilling to believe that linguistics is an actual field of study, and someone else might have a deeper understanding of language the same as, say, a dentist has of teeth, or an engineer has of bridges? Perhaps it’s because everyone speaks a language, so they feel like instant experts. We all have feet, too, so does that make us all podiatrists? Perhaps they lack even the understanding that language is a subject that can even be studied in an objective way.
That conversation was only one of many that I’ve had over the years with people who didn’t quite understand what it was to have studied linguistics. Some of my favorite questions were:
Sooo…linguistics…what is that exactly?
I guess you speak a lot of languages, huh?
What do you do with that?
So, do you, like, speak a language, then?
And when hearing that I also focused a lot of my work on signed languages, I would get this one: Aren’t all sign languages the same? Why would they have a different grammar? How can they communicate with each other?
Well, how can we communicate with a French speaker, or a Chinese, Russian, or Maori speaker? We can’t, of course, unless we also speak those languages or we have a translator. We can understand this in relation to spoken languages (well, fore-mentioned English prof excluded), but apparently not with signed languages. It’s fascinating, then, that a system so misunderstood by so many may be the key to understanding some of the more mysterious aspects of language itself and how it helps define us as human beings.
This point was made in an article I saw in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal entitled “Hands and Faces Spoke Long Before Our Tongues.” The article described speculation that language first evolved as a signed communication system, rather than a spoken one. “Most hearing people wonder why sign language is not internationally standardized. Answer: for the same reason spoken language is not standardized. Language is an evolved, not an ordained, order.” The WSJ article also made reference to Nicaraguan Sign Language, and how studying it gives us insight into the innate ability of humans to create language. It’s a fascinating case, almost like being able to watch evolution take place in a generation or two rather than thousands of years.
There’s still so much we don’t know about language, but we’re getting there. And for every mystery still left for linguists, there are dozens more that exist for people who still think that their dog can perfectly understand human speech, or that a person can be fluent in a foreign language simply by watching TV for a month. And so, I’m left with hoping that I can, in some small, limited way, help people understand a little bit more about these crazy sounds coming out of our mouths, or these random symbols on the screen that represent our thoughts, our feelings, and our very selves.