Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Internet and English: Tower of Babel?

In many countries if you learn English, entire worlds of opportunities open up to you.  English is, after all, spoken all over the world.  It's the language of international business, the official language of the European Union, and all sorts of other boring stuff.

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People in many countries are taught that English is easy to learn.  What that means exactly, I am still trying to understand.  I say this, because I teach English.  And I've taught English on and off for nigh on about 20 years.

Is it really simple?  In some ways.  Conjugating verbs is pretty straightforward compared to many other languages.  I don't even ever remember dealing with conjugation in school English classes.  But I don't think that conjugation of verbs is a full and true measure of difficulty.

What I do think adds greatly to the difficulty in learning English is misinformation.  In this case, the internet.  Supposedly the greatest medium for communication ever developed by freedom loving people (ehem).

I read somewhere (in a book about the different regional variations of English in England, actually) that there are something like 32 different ways to indicate the concept "throw" (propel something through the air, with the hand presumably) in English.  I have only actually gotten to about 7 (throw, toss, chuck, heave, hurl, pitch, whip, sling, let fly, flip).  How many's that?

The difference in any of those can only be defined with a demonstration.

Those of us who speak this language natively, have been largely trained to think that we'd never need another one.  Which is true most of the time, if you live in the USA. 

Since 90 percent of American don't really leave the country, why should they speak anything else?

Also in the USA, if you drive in one direction for eight hours, you will probably end up in a place where you'll encounter only a slightly different version of the language.  In fact, we once drove two weeks in one direction (New York to Seattle) and spoke the same English at the end of the trip as at the beginning...with a few exceptions; pop (for soda), sack (for bag), and the accent (whereby the word "deal" sounds like "dill") being the most notable.

What seems so disturbing to the rest of the world about Americans is that they seem to think that everyone else actually DOES speak English, but that those other people don't want to do so.

So let me set the record straight.  For anyone who thinks that everyone speaks some English, I'm here to tell you that's not the case.  I live in Barcelona, Spain and most people know a word or two.  Some people actually speak quite well.  However, these people are the exceptions.  By the way, Barcelona is a major city in Europe.  I've also been to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany in major cities, smaller cities, and in towns.  I can say confidently that only in Belgium was the level of English actually really good, very consistently.  That doesn't mean that all Belgians speak English.  Even in the Netherlands, in small-ish cities people did not speak English.

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So, to get to the point of this post, let me just say that since English is supposed to be the language of the world, let's help make it that way.

The internet with it's massive reach is now serving to pull the level of English down around the world.  Yes, more people than ever are speaking some English, and more people than ever are speaking it incorrectly, per capita, because of poor information found on the internet, and also because of poor (one might even say "crappy") examples of English from so-called reputable sources.

If we are all going to speak the same language, we need to do it with consistency.  Meaning we, who are native speakers, need to help others express their ideas with accuracy and correctness.  Correctness does not just mean that it is pleasing.  Not at all, what it means is that the expressed thought can be understood by anyone.

(Native) English speakers unite and help!

The next time you (a native speaker) see someone on the internet not using English properly; articles, for instance, let them know how to do so.   Thoughtfully would be best.  But do it.  It is NOT polite to let people make mistakes in a language and say nothing, just because you "understand".  Give them examples of correct usage, and help them improve.

In particular when you are reading something written by a Russian you need to do this.   Russians and most other Eastern Europeans are not trained in how to use articles in English.  They are actually taught that articles are of little value.  So little value that in many places the top schools don't mark down for lack of articles in essays.

As an example, if you say "software is easy to use" any native English speaker will tell you that that means that ALL software is easy to use.  However, I took this example from a review of a shareware program on CNET. 

In this case the correct version would be: "The software is easy to use".

What does that mean?  It means the software that is being reviewed is easy to use! 

A huge difference in meaning...all created with the addition of one word: THE

Now, how do you pronounce that word?