On occasion, I listen to midday programming on NPR if I’m out and about during my lunch hour. The other day I happened to catch a program on Talk of the Nation with the editor of a book titled How I Learned English. It was extremely fascinating to say the least. The book centers on prominent Latino Americans and the different methods they employed to master the English language. One storied example they shared was Congressman Jose Serrano who learned proper pronunciation and delivery of English by singing along with Frank Sinatra songs as he grew up in Puerto Rico.
As I listened to a variety of people calling into the program – Latino, Russian, what have you – to share their stories about how they learned to speak or master the English language, I was struck by the tenacity and the extreme discipline they displayed. Their study methods were unreal, driven by the desire to learn, to understand how they can communicate. One man called in saying he loved Moby Dick in Spanish. So, when he came to America, he bought Moby Dick in English as well as a Spanish-English dictionary and studied the two side by side until he understood it. How many people do you know take on a challenge in this way? And in case you’ve never read Moby Dick, the type of English Melville uses is difficult and profound. I would dare guess that most Americans wouldn’t understand half of what he writes because his word choice is elite, to say the least.
Call after call kept pouring into the program with personal experiences being shared. I was impressed by the dedication involved to learn a language we Americans feel that everyone else in the world should already speak. Too often I’ve seen people get frustrated with “foreigners” whose first language isn’t English, who make fun or somewhat patronize the person trying to communicate. I work in communications and I know how easily messages can be misconstrued but add on top of that the language barrier? It can be next to impossible.
Of course, not all native born Americans speak proper English anyway. Remember the Ebonics phase? “I be playing wit my dogs” or, have you ever listened to a rap or hip-hop song? Actually, it’s not just those genres of music. I shouldn’t pigeonhole them so much as they are already stereotyped into that category. But to be honest, they are not exactly “witty prose” either.
It’s become common, cool, and hip to speak in slang, and while it can be fun to have a conversation with more laid back verbiage, I think we’ve become too lazy to really learn how to speak well. I wish more Americans would have the same drive and persistence to master the English language as those for whom English is a second language.