Why yes, I do speak a language.

To start off one of my writing courses this semester, I had my students read an article called, “Getting it ‘write’: Essay styles vary by country, creating difficulties for international students.” It explains some of the ways that writing philosophies differ in various cultures, and how awareness of this fact helps students understand their task a little bit better as they try to adapt to an American education.

We’re all in the same boat.

Many of my students have had higher education experience in their native countries and thought they knew how to write. Then they arrived here and found themselves placed in a developmental writing course. Many of them believe it’s solely due to their grammar or vocabulary but don’t realize that there are other factors involved. Having them start the semester with this article gives them a chance not only to adjust their expectations, but also to make them feel better about why they need remedial work.

In their written responses to the article, most students will express relief that they are not the only ones who are struggling. They also are comforted to know that they are not being labeled as ‘bad writers’ but simply as people who need practice with a different style of writing. Many of them also wish that more college professors – other than their writing instructors – had this understanding of the differences in writing.

This last idea is something I heartily agree with. College professors – especially those who work at a college that has a substantial international student population – should be better informed about cultural and linguistic differences, and in fact, should probably be better informed about language in general.

To explain a bit further, I am going to re-post something I wrote back in March of 2011, entitled, “Do you speak a language?”  Enjoy!

Do you speak a language?

“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?”

That’s me in the front, protecting my eyes from the blinding ignorance. I’m in bird form, of course.

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.

5 thoughts on “Why yes, I do speak a language.

  1. I’m appalled that an English professor could have such a lack of knowledge. As someone who has dabbled in linguistics for years, I would be very sad if all grammars were as boring as English.

    If only we would have had a separate subjunctive!

    • I was – to use one of my favorite Britishisms – gobsmacked. It also started getting me kind of freaked out about what sort of crap my poor students have to deal with once they leave me.

      I mourn our loss of the subjunctive as well. It’s a useful little construction. Perhaps that’s why I am so attached to our one “If I were…” remnant :)

  2. Pingback: Amateurs want algorithms, but pros use heuristics « Pros Write
  3. It’s great that you point out the differences in essay writing. When I started my university studies I was surprised and discouraged by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to end the first paragraph of an essay with a question. I’m not sure if it’s an ‘official’ rule of Polish style but I remember being told by a teacher that finishing a paragraph with a question is ok and I used to do it. Over the five years of studies, however, I’ve grown accustomed to the English/American style (is there a difference between the two?) and started to consider it the only good way of writing. Your post and the article made me think of this matter again.

    • I think there are slight differences between American and English styles of writing, though they might be more in terms of style or formulaic language rather than in overall organization. I took a course for an advanced teaching certification (called the DELTA) that was controlled by the U.Cambridge Exams Syndicate, so that was my limited experience with writing assignments specifically for a British system. I don’t remember running into too many issues, but I do remember having to tweak things a little bit. It was almost 10 years ago and I don’t remember the specifics except for one minor detail that I have actually adopted for my teaching: word counts. All my assignments in American universities were given in required page lengths, but my assignments for the certificate were given in word limits. I like that a lot better. As a writer, it makes me more aware of my use of words and making each word count. As a professor, it also means I don’t have to fuss with figuring out if students are giving me larger margins or fonts or whatever just to get to a page limit.

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