English as She is Spoke by Angela Caldin
Breaking the Carapace of the English Language
There was a wonderful programme on UK’s Channel 4 recently, entitled ‘Why don’t you speak English?’ It tackled head on the question of why some immigrants fail to learn English and therefore find it hard to integrate into British society. The programme makers selected four immigrants: one from Poland, one from China, one from Colombia and one from Congo, all of whom had a very sketchy grasp of English. Each one was billeted for a week in an English household in the hope that the total immersion involved would kick start their ability to speak and communicate. What happened to each of the immigrants made riveting television as the attempts to teach English and to encourage integration into society and the job market gave way to the exchange of information about life experiences and to communication on a deeper level. This was startlingly true in the case of Sifa from the Congo who described through an interpreter and with dramatic gestures how she had seen her parents hacked to death in front of her. Her hosts were reduced to a stunned silence out of which came the revelation that they too had lost a family member – their son. The scene at the end of the programme where they all plant a tree in his memory is achingly poignant. The Polish woman who really gets on the nerves of her Asian hostess because of her lack of work ethic, unexpectedly bonds with the hostess’ mother in the kitchen as she learns to make chapatis and is touchingly presented with a rolling pin. The young Chinese mother billeted in Redcar finally manages to request 100 grams of liquorice allsorts in a sweetshop, only to be told that they only stock Pontefract cakes. Later, her hosts take her off to play Bingo, exhausted and at a loss as to how to improve her English. Finally, the man from Colombia who has left his family in Spain to try to find work here, achieves some kind of respect from the pub landlord who hosts him and is anxious to know above all whether he has a job. He does have one as it happens, doing removals, although he has 8 years’ experience in the oil industry.
Stumbling Blocks of Learning English
I taught English to foreigners myself for a while and I’m only too well aware that it’s not an easy thing to do. Often, you’ll have a class of fifteen or so from the four corners of the world, all bringing their different brains, educational and cultural backgrounds, prejudices, alphabets and abilities to the classroom. Then there’s the English language itself with all its different quirks and peculiarities. Think about pronunciation first of all: words that are spelt in a similar way are pronounced very differently. Just have a look at the examples below:
How is anybody who hasn’t learnt English as a child meant to make sense of it all and remember what’s what?
Then there’s the complicated use of question tags which are used so much in spoken English:
A positive statement needs a negative tag as in:
- It’s raining, isn’t it?
Whereas a negative statement needs a positive tag as in:
- It isn’t raining, is it?
And the tag must agree in tense and use the right auxiliary verb as in:
- He hasn’t lived here long, has he?
- You went to Tom’s last weekend, didn’t you?
The French have cleverly overcome all the above complications by using the one size fits all, n’est-ce pas, while the Spanish simply say non.
Then there’s the famous past perfect conditional which I was explaining to a Polish friend the other day. She had been to the J-Lo concert in Hyde Park and wanted to say something about the photographs she had taken. She wanted to talk about the imaginary situation of her being nearer the front and how this would have improved her photos. In other words, she wanted to describe how something could have happened differently if circumstances had been different. She wanted to use what is sometimes called the past unreal or hypothetical conditional. Finally we got to it and I wrote it down for her:
- If I had been nearer the front, I would have been able to take better photographs.
She took the piece of paper and practised as she walked off down the street. My sympathies went with her.