I once listened to two Indians castigating the English used by an American to teach children in an Indian school. Their point of contention was that the American said “children- what color is the sky?”. They vehemently opposed it and said the correct way was to say “ What is the colour of the sky” because that is what they were taught by their teachers so the American must be wrong and is not a good teacher so should be fired from his job. I just listened but kept quiet because I understood that there was something else at play here other than the grammar, spelling and syntax. I thought about it a great deal and found over the years that this phenomenon of “correct way” is quite prevalent in many countries where English is not their native language or even the second language and where English is taught by the locals whose mother tongue is not English.
Now a days there is a fad of learning English in many countries because they have come to realize that learning English the proper way is the ticket to better jobs and better pay because the world today is more interconnected than ever before and English is on its way to become the language most people like to use in communicating with others. So there is great demand in many countries for native English speakers like the British or Americans ,Australians or New Zealanders who are hired as teachers in their high schools. There are many expatriates in Vietnam , Cambodia, Thailand , Japan, Korea among others but in other countries like in the Philippines or India ,they still rely more on locals to teach English in primary schools and in college where the “correct way phenomenon” is observed. In the Philippines they constantly brag that they are the largest English speaking people in Asia but the fact remains that 95% of the population does not speak, read or write English at all and the rest 5% manages to speak it with a tenuous claim to fluency at best and poor grammar at worst. India does not make such outlandish claims but does have a small percentage of the population that speaks, reads and writes in English better than others so they work in call centers and in other jobs that require English as the main language.
The country also has quite a few English news papers where they have good editors to take out grammar or other errors before it goes to print. The Indians educated in the US universities or in England stand apart from others in fluency and the mastery of the language but seldom return to India because they easily get residency and good jobs there and settle down. Those who do return also find good jobs in India because of their education and fluency in the language since there is a need for good speakers of English.
I was just watching the BBC news this morning where a Sikh gentleman discussed the news with Mr.Adnan Nawaz in flawless British accented English but most likely he was born and educated in England like so many others. Often the off the boat people who emigrate to the United States or England do poorly but the second generation does much better than their parents because they integrate better than their parents and pick up the local accent quicker and more easily. You see this in Australia as well where Chinese immigrant girls speak with near perfect Aussie accent and vocabulary. So the key word is social integration that starts in the community and the school. Those who fail to integrate and remain apart from the rest of the population find solace in their own community where they can speak their native tongue ,shop in their neighborhood that are run by their countrymen, send their children to their own day care center and later to schools run by their countrymen.
The Filipinos who live in Daly city for twenty years or more still can’t speak good English because they mostly interact with Tagalog speakers like themselves but perhaps their children do better than the parents due to necessity more than anything else because all western countries encourage integration as a way to a better life with good paying jobs and a brighter future. Those who do not integrate due to self imposed fear of losing their ethnic, cultural or religious identity do so at the peril of stagnating socially and more importantly economically. You can see this stagnation in France, Germany and some European countries where Moslems tend to live apart in ghettos and end up in poor paying jobs although many speak good French or German. Their insistence on maintaining their religious identity often leads to radicalization in the worst way possible that has its own consequences.
So I would like to come back to the issue of “the correct way phenomenon” and study it some more to understand the reasons behind it so I will stick to English only.
There was a Peace Corps girl teaching in a rural barrio in the Philippines whom the children greeted by saying “hey you, what’s your name”? so she answered “My name is Susan.” The next time the children asked “ Susan , what’s your name”. These kids who did not speak, read or write English at all thought that “ hey you,what’s your name was a greeting that they had memorized and continued that way to the amusement of the American. Later these kids will get some primary education and some even a secondary education where they will learn some English taught by the locals who are not proficient themselves but take great pride in their ability to “teach” English. This is where the “correct way phenomenon” kicks in. It is the same way in India as I mentioned earlier.
These people can’t be corrected by anyone because their pride in their ability stands in the way. Only they know the correct way , the grammar and the pronunciation so they will make fun of anyone who is different. My son’s teacher in elementary school insisted in her class that people in Haiti should be called Hatian and not Haitian so made fun of our son who was innocent and had answered correctly but the teacher had to put him in his place. This emphasis on “correct way” persists in college as well but more so in high school where conformity is the rule. You must say ooch instead of ouch, sweet shirt instead of sweat shirt, ausome instead of awesome. The list is long but the point is that you must conform and speak the way everybody speaks because that is the “right and correct way”.
It gets worse later on because some of these kids get to college later where the English may be taught as a subject again by non native speaker of the language so the students who do not speak English or are very poor develop a language of their own called Tagalish which is a mixture of Tagalog and some English . In other countries it may be Hinlish, (Hindi-English), Chinglish( Chinese-English) or Thinglish(Thai-English) as the case may be but it all comes from the inability to express oneself in English fluently. The teachers in colleges prefer Tagalish because their own education was in Tagalish so they can’t teach in straight correct English. Students quickly find out who among them is good in English and will copy their book report with slight modifications because they cannot comprehend Joseph Conrad’s writings. Our daughter was always sought out by her classmates in such cases. They did not know that her first language was English but knew that she spoke fluently with an astounding vocabulary that won her first prize in extemporaneous speaking contest as a child as did her brother. Now the Tagalish is used extensively in movies, TV and radio so it has become a language of its own.
The influence of mother tongue :
The pernicious effect of mother tongue in learning a language like English is perhaps inevitable but prevents people from learning English with good accent specially if they do not go out of their country to live elsewhere where English is the language. This has something to do again with conformity. Filipinos must speak English like other Filipinos, Indians like other Indians and Thais like other Thais. There is a second factor that comes to play here. Many languages do not have a certain alphabet so it is very difficult for them to pronounce a word in English using that alphabet like the Filipinos do not have C, F, Z etc. so you can understand their conundrum. Similarly Thais do not have R in their alphabet and the Japanese do not have L so the Thais have a hard time with R words and Japanese with L words. I do not know about the Koreans or the Chinese but they too must have their own issues. When we were children , our father taught us conjugation that we had to memorize. So we learned ba, be ,bi, bo, bu, by etc. But this is not taught here in the Philippines so they miss out on correct pronunciation.
The third factor that comes into play is the grammar of the mother tongue. When people apply the same grammar rule to English, they run into trouble. When you ask them a question in English, they compose an answer in their mind in their own language and then try to translate it into English instead of thinking in English. Often the translation is very different from what the answer should be so that too can be very problematic that leads to poor comprehension. It is hard to converse with anyone who has so much translation to do mentally before he opens his mouth and even then you are not sure how much he comprehends.
The last factor that stands in the way of learning good fluent English is the accent of the mother tongue. The Hindi speakers for example can’t say Botany because they do not have this O sound in Hindi so it comes out as Baatni . Similarly the Bengali speakers can’t say Cut, But, Must etc . because their language does not have the U sound so it comes out as Caat, Baat, Maast etc. This is called the mother tongue influence and is common in all countries where English is not their language.
How some people can overcome these influences and learn to speak English fluently like the Americans or an Englishman is perhaps more dependent on the individual’s own effort and endeavor but living in an English speaking environment can make a big difference. It is no secret that you can Learn French a lot faster and start to talk like a Frenchman if you live in France in a rural area where no one speaks English or your language. Often children are great teachers because they do not embarrass you if you make mistakes and are very patient with you. The television and radio are also great teachers of the language and then there are language schools.
So learning English or any other language is a skill that can get better with practice and the desire to imitate and by developing a vast vocabulary. The ability to learn quickly and imitating can go a long way in improving the skill.
Language and its evolution :
All languages tend to evolve over a certain period of time so English is no different in that sense. In fact the modern English is quite different from the old English spoken and written 400 years ago and it is still evolving. This is also true in French and many other languages that enrich their language by borrowing words from other languages. No one will criticize Jean Ferrat for singing “je twisterai “ in his songs .Many English words are now part of their language just like many Hindi and Arabic words are now part of the English language.
When one American asked me rather contemptuously what Hindi words English had borrowed ,I answered that off the bat I can recall many words like cummerbund, jodhpur, jungle, pyjama, chutney, veranda etc. to his great surprise but he still snickered. But English has borrowed for centuries words from Latin and Greek and Arabic to enrich itself. The Arabic words like Shaitan ( satan), Alkohl ( alcohol) are now part of the English vocabulary. The languages that borrow words from others grow in its richness and those that do not borrow do not grow as a language and do not evolve. Just imagine how google has become a word now a days and many others that have come about due to technological advancements. New words are added periodically that then become the vogue.
The French are a stubborn people when it comes to their language so they refuse to say septant, octant, nonant like the Belgians or the Canadians and still say soixant dix, quatre vingt, quatre vingt dix etc. although septant, octant etc. makes more sense. When they do invent a word on their own, they take great pride like when the space capsule landed in the ocean, they coined the word “amerisage” . But other languages like Sanskrit is a very ancient language that stays that way because it can’t evolve.
The ability of any language that expresses itself well and is willing to accommodate words from other languages then gains prominence just like English has done and has become a major language that everyone wants to learn to speak. Other languages like German or French have remained limited to some countries although learning them can be considered a great skill .Anyone who is fluent in English, French and Spanish and has proper education can get a job easily in his vocation.
So if you have children of your own, give them the opportunity to learn a foreign language as their mother tongue. If that is not possible then as a second language. Remember that language is a skill that people can pick up and it gets better with practice just like any other skill.