The Fear of English!

Here we are again to take a look at all that is involved with being or becoming an international student in Canada.

Since we were on the subject of English, let’s hop right back on it!

It is obvious and an understatement to say that English is the world’s language – the language of business, diplomacy, travel and entertainment.

A common ground through which people of different language backgrounds can communicate. Yet, for many non-native English speakers, studying English revives dark, sad memories of sour-faced, cold-hearted teachers, endless recitation, and ever-changing grammar rules made even more difficult by a spelling system that was designed by someone who clearly had far too much to drink. Why does ‘knife’ start with a ‘k’? Or ‘laugh’ ends with a ‘gh’?

This is a shame because as a result of its global mobility, English is one of the most flexible languages in the world that invents new words and phrases and takes influences from every part of the world. I will tell you a secret if you promise to keep it yourself! The vast majority of native English speakers have no idea what the grammar rules are. Grammar rules, unlike many languages, are not set in stone or overseen by any academic committee. France, for example, has the “The Académie française.” which decides the standards of the French language and several other countries too have similar organizations. English, by contrast, is constantly being adapted and reshaped, and it is the best example of a living language! 

Did you know that only 100 years or so ago to call someone incredible was a terrible insult? It meant they were a liar. Today it means they are fantastic, or at least I think it does, as no one has ever said it to me! One hundred years ago, I guessed I would have heard it a lot more 😋

Why did I give this brief but fascinating history lesson? Because the greatest fear English learners have is making a mistake when speaking. The fear of embarrassment holds many people back from attempting to learn. Unfortunately, the only way to really learn English is to speak it and listen to it. English is a language where effective communication can begin with a small vocabulary and no grammar understanding at all. The ability will grow naturally from there. There is no need to fear speaking too.. if you say “I went to the store yesterday and bought an apple.” that is correct and if you say “yesterday I store, go apple buy” that is completely wrong but I completely understand what you said. You have communicated clearly in another language. No one will laugh at you, and over time you will learn a better way to say it, or the English-speaking world will start to say it your way! You are now part of the living language, and since you are a part of it, there is no reason to be afraid of it.

I taught high school for many years in a foreign country. Every summer, I would have the students write a short essay about their summer vacation. 

Most students wrote a few paragraphs trying very hard to remember the spelling and grammar, making their writing more complicated than it needed to be and more difficult for me to correct. Then I read the essay I will never forget: “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” Ocean go, Mountain see. Dog walk.

I gave him an A.

The English language is a work in progress. Have fun with it. Jonathan Culver.