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.