April 10, 2023

Who needs the natives? (Revisited)

Written by Ian Winick

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Having English as your native language is something of a mixed blessing.

There’s no doubt that speaking the world’s lingua franca from birth is a great advantage. But at the same time, watching as your richly complex mother tongue descends into a kind of makeshift Esperanto is a little like having your vintage Aston Martin stolen and finding it three days later in a bumper car arcade.

Not to mention that it’s an all-too-convenient excuse for English speakers not to bother learning any other languages. And, on a more sinister note, for governments of English-speaking nations to starve schools and universities of funding for modern languages.

The coolness factor associated with modern-day English is firmly rooted in pop culture. In the pre-Netflix age at least, big-budget movies and TV were almost exclusively produced in English, feeding the watching world’s insatiable appetite for American lifestyle or consummate Britishness. And for music lovers the world over, English was the key to unravelling the lyrical complexities of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Right Said Fred.

But another important factor is the accessible nature of the language itself. English is more plug-and-play than other European languages. Unlike German, you don’t need to have mastered seven points of grammar before you can ask the way to the toilet. Contrary to their French counterparts, English-speaking schoolkids don’t own a special book detailing 12,000 verbs in 95 conjugation tables in their own language. And, unless you’re very weird, inanimate objects don’t have genders in English: there is – mercifully – only one word for “the”.

Beneath the deceptively inviting surface, however, English is a tricky language. It may well be a natural choice for international communication, but it didn’t evolve that way and there are plenty of pitfalls for the overconfident.

In Stephen Fry’s Paperweight – a book I have read so often that I am currently dog-earing and tea-staining my third copy – the author compares languages to towns, arguing that they need to “grow organically and for good reason”. There should, he feels, be a sense that “mankind has grown and lived and worked here, shaping the architecture according to necessity, power or worship”. This inevitably means that strangers get lost in the “absurd, narrow, twisting streets” of the English language, even if they can find their way very easily when they stick to the main tourist thoroughfares.

Counterintuitive as it might be to speakers of other languages, you can’t say “a bread”, “an own bicycle” or “a four-doors car” in English. It might make more sense to foreign ears to say “Ireland is playing France in rugby today” or “Queen is number one in the charts” but most of us – on this side of the pond, at least – would instinctively treat collective nouns as plural: “Ireland are” and “Queen are”. And, regardless of what the yellowed pages of your ancient grammar book might say, you can’t go around saying “It is I, Jeremy” unless you’ve just stepped out of a time machine.

However, many learners of English are not bothered by these ramps in the road because they simply drive right over them, singing along to ABBA at the top of their voices. Which, of course, is absolutely fine – some people are content just to make themselves understood and don’t lose any sleep over making mistakes. Life’s too short.

(A case in point is an American colleague of mine here in Germany who has developed what appears to be a rotation system for using German articles. The first noun he uses in a sentence will invariably be masculine, the second feminine and the third neuter. He’s correct a third of the time and is perfectly happy with that hit rate. I suspect he also sleeps better than I do.)

But … and this is a big but … whenever questions about English usage crop up on Twitter or other forums (yes, forums!), some students of the language seem to feel that they have a better grasp of its delicate nuances than native-speaker writers. And cheerfully ignore the solemn warnings from English speakers all over the world that some aspects of the language are more complex than they might appear.

Incidentally, the first time I ever witnessed this kind of bullet-proof self-belief was at a party in pre-digital days, when a German guy asked me if I was sure that “Ian” was pronounced “Ee-an” and not “Eye-an” as that was how he had always pronounced it. He eventually relented when I offered to call my mother and check, but I could tell that, in his heart of hearts, he still wasn’t willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.

Twitter is a popular haunt for language learners who feel qualified to argue the toss with native-speaker translators and copywriters like myself. Not long ago, one of these … let’s call them “tossers” … hijacked a discussion I had started and proceeded to gloss over the complexities of the English language like a child playing checkers with chess pieces. A little later, when I was fashioning a voodoo doll out of his profile picture (I was particularly pleased with the flammable moustache), I suddenly recalled a thread that I had started on an online translators forum back in the early twenty-first century.

At the time, this post – called Who Needs The Natives? – opened up an industrial-sized can of worms. The online discussion went on for weeks and was reminiscent of the early fight scene in West Side Story, albeit more loosely choreographed and with less finger-snapping. The ranks were split between English-speaking colleagues who agreed with me and other translators who, by and large, failed to grasp the point I was making. Which was that native English speakers are rarely afforded the same respect as their counterparts in other languages because almost everyone speaks some semblance of English and the bar is often set distressingly low.

Of course, no one is saying that non-natives should stay out of grammar discussions – after all, they have learnt the language the hard way and often bring valuable insight to the table. But when it comes to nuance – whether or not something sounds right – native speakers should have the last word in any language, including English. You won’t find me or any other English speakers holding court on French or German online forums, patiently explaining the finer points of those languages to native speakers who never had the advantages that we had.

Twenty years later, I’m sad to say that things haven’t changed much in this regard. Thankfully, though, I have: I am older, wiser and less inclined to hunt down offenders and insert a Compact Oxford English Dictionary in them. Or to get roped into online arguments with self-important windbags who would tire out a Jack Russell. Life’s too short.

40 comments on “Who needs the natives? (Revisited)”

  1. Ah, I knew the title rang a distant bell. I have a feeling I recall the discussion - not the details, merely the fact of its existence.
    (I'm pretty hopeless remembering noun genders myself, and have become quite nimble at constructing sentences solely in the plural, and eschewing superfluous adjectives that might change in the feminine!)

  2. You have nailed it through the eyes. I’ve been whining about this very topic to a couple iTalki tutors I use for Sp and It.
    I have ESL training and taught Mex migrant workers but won’t teach anymore as my Span gets corrected so often for stupid grammar issues whereas their English if good enough is, well, perfectly fine.

    I have almost started to hate having been raised in monolingual Canada for much what you write.

    This: “a kind of makeshift Esperanto”

  3. This entire subject was the inspiration for my book Les trucs d'anglais qu'on a oublié de vous enseigner. I noticed that non-native speakers all seemed to run up against the same problems in English, no matter how well they spoke the language. BTW, I like your writing style. And yes, you called me up short with the example "Ireland is playing France"; my first thought was "What's wrong with the word Ireland?"

  4. Great post as always Ian.
    A German friend once insisted that patio was pronounced pesh-she-o and wouldn’t hear otherwise.

  5. When I was an au pair, my German Gastmutter suggested I practice speaking English with her son. We got as far as "My name is Peter. I am nine. I have a dog and a cat" when she stopped me in horror. "You can't teach him to say it like that!" she cried. "He'll get bad marks at school for pronunciation. It's 'I heff a dog end a kett'".

  6. Reminds me of the Dutch client who refused to accept my 'Weather permitting, the reception will be held outside' and insisted it should be 'If the weather permits it,...'

  7. Thanks for this! I'm curious where this attitude comes from. One possibility is that people have spent so many years working on and suffering for their command of English that they feel justified in correcting those who seem not to have made the same effort (it's true that I was never sent off to summer camp abroad to improve my English). There may be some people who are genuinely assured of their own perfection. A few of them will never accept correction of their English grammar from people who don't even know Greek and Latin (barbarians). And there may be some who are projecting their own anxiety. I once read a German novel in which the main character (a German) had his spoken English derided by an American as merely "angelernt." What would that insult even be in English? My conclusion was that the author had revealed his own fears.

  8. Lovely read, Ian, and one that had me laughing out loud at some points. How dare you presume to know how to pronounce your own name?! Reminded me of when a neighbour of mine, Dutch originally, although she had been brought up partly in Canada and lived for years in the UK, saw fit to correct my grammar in a FB post. I can't remember the exact sentence, but something along the lines of "They sent James and me on ahead...". "Shouldn't that be 'James and I'", she cried. Bangs head against wall - oh to have that supreme confidence (arrogance?) to correct a native speaker, especially when you know they are a linguist!

  9. a few immed thoughts (which I may reference back over on that hell-site that I still can't quit):

    1) nice piece!
    2) poor Jack Russell
    3) Yes to fora (and platypodes!)
    4) flammable FTW (having lived and worked in the UK I still have to compute a split second longer whenever I see 'inflammable' on this side of the pond, albeit a bit to the north)
    5) Can I borrow your copy of COED after yer thru bc I have my own targets

  10. Spot on Ian,

    Thank you, I really enjoyed reading your post. It is sad but so true.
    My main experience has been with non-mother tongue European technical writers. You try and help them, by pointing out a few problems, as tactfully as possible, to avoid subsequent problems for the translators translating into dozens of languages, but they just do not believe you or appreciate it!

  11. Oh my! I just read all the glorious comments with examples and anecdotes. Ian, you have struck a nerve or a vein here! Rarely does anyone speak knowledgeably about this delicate topic. Young, I read that all linguistics has as a standard is the undemented, naive native speaker of a natural language.

  12. Great read, Eye-an! Made me chuckle and also made some very interesting points.

    My feeling is that some non-native speakers come at this from languages where the grammar and pronunciation are more prescriptive than in English. This leaves them feeling there is a "right way" of doing things - usually the way they were taught. The way English is spoken and even written by natives is so much more fluid and haphazard than that and this leaves people a bit miffed.

    Well, that's my two cents worth anyway. Thanks again for the great post!

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