Are we, ESL people, speaking and writing in a way that is different than standard English?

A few months ago I read this piece in the NYT about having a foreign spouse. The writer highlights the differences in the way one communicates from language to language and how enriching this experience is for a marriage. This piece really resonated with me as I am also married to someone with whom I do not share a native language. My husband learned Turkish after we met and I am fluent in English. Our daily miscommunications add a distinct flavor to our interactions. We enjoy this difference. 

It is indeed a joy to explore how Turkish is different than English when talking to my husband. That does not mean that I no longer get frustrated about the way I communicate in English. During my daily and professional conversations (written and spoken), in a language (English) I learned after the age of 12,  something gets lost. For instance, I am still inclined to call the act of turning on a TV “opening the television” and I also mix he/shes – as there are no gender designations to the third person in my native Turkish. These are just a few examples of the daily mishaps of how I use my language.

When I speak well, I am often mimicking a construction I heard somewhere else. I am like a parrot. I have many of the colloquialism of my husband and some of my friends. I often try to remember something that sounds good that I hear and hope to use it someday to display my mastery of English language. The other day, I was so happy that I used the word avuncular (acting like an uncle) in the right context. I heard the word from my husband a few years ago and have been waiting for the right opportunity to be a one word smart person- you know the type of person who knows the bigger words that says a lot and a perfect fit to a situation.  Understanding what these mishaps or the way I use English is of interest to me.  These instances or mistakes are a direct outcome of who I am and choices I made about my life (moving from one country to another, picking a profession where I communicate in spoken and written form frequently, etc.).

When operating in a new linguistic system on a daily basis, the identity of the communicator is not always at the core of the consideration of the production. Thus, the hybrid way many of us who adjust to a new everyday language communicate often come across as fault as opposed to being assessed as a unique way of expressing oneself. So my question of the day is:

Are we, ESL people, speaking and writing in a way that is different than standard English? Shouldn’t the way we communicate be embraced as a variation of language (as opposed to a mistake)?

Are we always a step away?

I come across daily alterations of language (from the standard form) in two ways. In my own practice and in practices of evaluation as an educator.

In the first form, it is my own use of language. As someone for whom English became a second language later in age, I indeed struggle everyday even with daily interactions. I come across as fluent but intuitions that come from childhood for language mistakes are not native for me – for English. I know that they are not – because they are for my native Turkish. I get irked by the very same small mistakes that I make in English and become alarmed in ways my counterparts do for my speaking and writing in English, in Turkish. Thus, it is not that I am not equipped with this intuition. It is that I am in a different language.

The second form is when I interact with some of my students for whom English also is a second language. When I evaluate their work, I am cautious about the feedback. Those who have to operate in a foreign language are fragile and often feel exposed. They are trying to engage in two distinct tasks at the same time:  ensuring that they obey the rules of a foreign language whilst also trying to communicate an idea. Often one of these tasks (and sometimes both) fall short. It is indeed the case that a native speaker will fall short in this endeavor as well.

When I was as a student myself, the criticism I received that was not constructive indeed had a long lasting impact on me. I remember a college professor complimenting me on my ideas whilst wishing that I “knew how to write well in English”. This resulted in a perpetual fear of writing, but a trust in my ideas nonetheless. She told me what I did right but did not offer much guidance as to how to modify my language. I also did not want to justify why I wrote the way I did – I did not want to tell her that I wrote a paper for the first time in English when I arrived to college just a year ago. I just wanted to fix that gap with a bruised ego. What we say to someone who is trying to navigate an unfamiliar field matters. It also takes time to learn a language and even when you are fluent it is still work to think and act in a foreign language. 

Why not embrace the accomplishments of someone who can write/speak in different languages? (and how to do that?)

And often, the judgement of those who make frequent (or infrequent) mistakes in the standard English, particularly in the US, can be annoying. This is in consideration of the fact that (according to citation in a PEW report) only 25% of Americans actually speak a foreign language. Out of that, only 43 percent say that they speak that language well. Out of this 25 % of Americans who can speak a foreign language, 89% are heritage speakers (which means that they learn the language at home or from their community) and about 7% saying they learned language just in school. My math is not great but that makes those of us who live in the US, operating proficiently in a foreign language which is English, a very large anomaly for the general US public (if my math is right less than 1 % of US population actually learned a language in school and can speak well according to this statistic)- not something the majority of the population experience or even try to attain. That might be the reason why our attempts at speaking or writing in English is under scrutiny. Many who offer the non-natives of English commentary about the structural gaps we may have in communicating in this language, otherwise have no experience of actually operating in foreign language. That makes this situation more interesting. 

I believe that, if there was more exposure to the daily work of existing in a foreign language, perhaps there would be more of an embrace of the hybrid ways we say and write things – they are not mere mistakes but distinct marks of our identity.



Note: As my husband read the first iteration, ironically he fixed some of my language  – I am sure there are still mistakes of my own but with the spirit of this piece, I will let them be. Enjoy!



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