June 23, 2018

How lucky we are to speak English!

By John Guy LaPlante

With one photo.

Yes, indeed. Because English is now the world’s most popular language. The one so many people in so many other countries can read as a second language. And which so many others are trying so hard to learn.

At one time French was the big international language. Hah!

Now this gives us a great advantage when we travel abroad —  a better chance of being understood and more ease in getting around. More books and technical and scientific papers originating in other countries getting translated into English and becoming available to us here. All of this giving us reason to be very proud.

It sounds incredible, but our globe supports 6,000 languages. Thank goodness we Americans don’t speak 5,999 of those as our birth tongue. Well, most of us. We’ve had the good fortune of growing up in English.

What a richness of English lies between these covers.

By the way, here I’m not speaking of British English or South African English or Australian English or Indian English or even Canadian English, which have big differences. I’m speaking of our English. Yours and mine.

I just mentioned Indian English—the English of India. Yes, India has English. What?!  A strange story. India is big – a third the size of the U.S but 1.3 billion people. Many sects. Hindi is the major language but 779 others. So how to speak to someone of a different sect? If you got higher schooling, you use English.

How come English? Well, England ruled India for many years and imposed it. Hindi is India’s main language but English is an official language,

spoken by 150 million. I’ve seen that for myself. Thanks to Indian friends, I’ve made two long trips  through through India. Got to most areas, north, south, east, and west.  I often managed to understand and to be understood.

So their English works, sure. But it isn’t our English, believe me. There are so many differences in inflection, vocabulary, pronunciation. And slang! But it is genuine English.

Our English – our American brand – is the world’s second most spoken language. Mandarin, China’s most important language, is the world’s largest. The next are Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German, French.  And people with those as their mother tongue make it a priority to learn ours.

As we know, China has grown into our most important rival economically, and that has great significance in many facets of Chinese life.

Here’s how I see China today. It may sound outlandish but I feel comfortable in saying it. I’ve been to China four times. The fourth just four years ago. I have good friends in China. This happened to me because one of my books—“Around the World at 75, Alone, Dammit”—was published there. In Mandarin. Our English is their most popular foreign language.

These days, millions of Chinese are studying our English. In their schools. And also here in the USA. Do you have any idea how many Chinese are studying in our universities? I checked. 350,755 last year. More would come if they could. And that’s been the trend for years and it’s certain to continue.

Sure, more Americans are studying Mandarin. But by comparison darn few.

So here’s my take on China today.  The last century – the 1900’s –is when we became the biggest and most influential country on the globe and therefore the most formidable. I don’t think anyone will dispute that.

Well, we have 82 years left in this century, right? I believe China will eclipse us. This is China’s century. I feel it would be smart for my  grandchildren and great- grandchildren to study Mandarin. And if you buy stocks, smart for you to buy into a Chinese mutual fund.

All this said about our national  language, I must now say that not all of us in our 50 states speak the same English.  Go to Bangor in Maine, or El Paso in Texas, or Atlanta in Georgia, or Salem in Oregon, or Honolulu in Hawaii, or Anchorage in Alaska, and particularly the smaller towns  in those states, and you’ll be surprised by the different flavors.

I was born in little Rhode Island and spent most of my years in Massachusetts. Well, years ago I attended a professional conference in Phoenix, Arizona. There were attendees from all over the country. After our keynote speaker finished – he was from Michigan, I believe – questions were invited from us. A man got up and asked one, then a woman. I stood and asked one. You should have heard the laughter that erupted!

They were laughing at my accent.  Yes, my accent. “We know where you’re from!” one man laughed. Which was Massachusetts. I was laughing, too, and yelled back, “Hey, you’re the ones who sound funny!” And I meant it. After all, it’s always the other person who has the accent, of course. Never us. Haven’t you experienced that?

But the accent differences were much, much sharper when I was a boy.  It’s radio, and then television, that flattened out our English.  Nowadays the accent that most national radio and TV people on the air aspire to pick up is that of educated southern New Englanders – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. That’s a fact.

Now let me tell you a bit about my language experiences in other lands.

Quite often in China, I’d be approached by two or three teenagers.  A girl would say, “My name is Betty.”  That was an assumed name, of course. And then would ask, “Where are you from?” Very sweet. And I would tell her. Then, a boy would say, “I am Dick. Do you like China?” And I’d say “Yes, yes, yes!”

They suspected I was American and they wanted to practice their English.

As many of you know, I served 27 months in Peace Corps, which is a full hitch. In Ukraine. Went to school six days a week for the first three months. Russian, the history of Ukraine, its culture. Russian because that would be the language where I’d be stationed (though Ukrainian is the main language.) Agonizingly difficult. Felt I’d be sent home. But they kept me.

There I taught English at university level.  In my everyday life, at a store or whatever, whenever I started to say something in Russian, the clerk or somebody else might jump in and start speaking English to me. They wanted to practice. They understood the enormous importance of English.

I saw its importance in country after country in my travels around the world. Hostels were always my first choice. Every hostel invariably had guests from other countries.  Australia (a common occurrence), France, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, wherever.  Mostly young people. And many spoke English, at least a little.  Because they knew its convenience in world travel.

Though English is incredibly difficult. For them probably as difficult as Russian was for me. Let me give you just one little example of the difficulties. How many ways do we pronounce a word with the letters ou?  Now have fun – pronounce ours, then yours, then ouch, then touch, then through, then enough, then rouge, then wound. See! And this is just a starter.

Yet we mastered all these difficult subtleties, slowly, one at a time, because we were born here and grew up in the language. Yes, how lucky we are.

God bless America! God bless our English!

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Again I look forward to comments from you. I read them all. Don’t hesitate. Truly I’m eager to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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