Print Friendly, PDF & Email

{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, 3-5-09}

Imagine that Russian language classes are mandatory, starting in 6th grade. Imagine that, in order to get in to college, you had to pass an exam that tested how well you spoke it.

Imagine that all the trendiest stores in America have names like “DETSKIY MIR”, and “TORGOVIY TSENTR”. Imagine all the TV shows are dubbed in English over a Russian soundtrack that you can hear in the background.
Imagine that all the big name movie stars speak Russian, and that all major Hollywood releases are in Russian. Whenever you go to the movies, the sound track doesn’t match up with the dialog, and you never hear the actors’ real voices.

Imagine that, whenever Russians come to town, you want to meet them so you can practice. After all, your chances for a successful career depend on how good your Russian is.

Now change America to Russia and Russian to English, and you’ve got the world I live in.

As an American in Russia, I’m in a position of privilege. That’s because my native language happens to be English. Being a native speaker of English in the modern world is a leg up over everybody else, a tremendous advantage to anyone lucky enough to be raised by English-speaking parents.

That’s too bad for everybody else because learning English is hard. It’s a good thing my parents spoke it, otherwise I’d never have figured it out.

Think you have trouble spelling? Imagine the problems foreigners have with English.

Why do the words “write” and “right” sound exactly the same? Even worse, why do they mean completely different things?

Why do the letters “g” and “h” make one sound as separate letters and another one as a pair? Why don’t words like “rough” and “cough” rhyme? How come the “gh” sound completely disappears when you change “rough” to “through”? For that matter, why does the “ou” mutate into a third, completely different sound, like something out of “Andromeda Strain”?

You might think that at least plurals aren’t bad, there’s nothing tricky about the letter “s”. Not so. Every Russian schoolchild knows that the “s” in “carrots” makes one sound, while the “s” in “cars” makes another. (Try it and see). I wasn’t even aware of the difference until saw an English textbook for Russian middle schoolers. Can you figure out the rule? It took me a couple of minutes.

And don’t get me started on words like “a”, “an”, and “the”. Russian doesn’t have them (nor do many other languages), and they give foreign speakers of English fits. There’s a reason why the stereotypical Russian movie villain says things like “I have question for you, Mr. Bond” and “Drop gun now!”.

In all honesty, I can’t blame them. Can you explain why “I have question” is wrong, but “I have a question” is perfectly fine? Why is it wrong to leave out the ‘a’ in “I have question”, but “I go to church” is just peachy, along with “I go to a church” and “I go to the church”. Though of course all three mean different things.

As native speakers of English, we never have to think about stuff like this. We swim through the treacherous currents of English grammar as easy as breathing. This is a condition much of the educated population of the world aspires to. That’s why you can go just about anywhere in the world and find work teaching English. What speakers of any other language can make that claim?

English has become the world’s international language through the fortunate interaction of historical contingencies, a place where the right ideas met the right people at the right time. Such a combination is fortunate, anyway, for those of us who have spoken English since birth. After all, in a world of 6.75 billion people, only about 5% are native English speakers.

So if you can read these symbols prepared by the Gazette’s typesetter and, as a result, share the ideas I had in my mind when I put them together, good for you. If you can do so without the aid of a dictionary, and indeed without any conscious awareness that you’re doing anything special at all, then you’re a native speaker of English, one of the world’s chosen few.

Use your power wisely.

Enhanced by Zemanta