I believe in my language; English – especially American English.
I have spent many years exploring and considering the intricacies, pitfalls, mysteries and miracles of using, teaching, and making sense of the language I was born into; a language rich in words, unafraid to bend or even contradict its own rules, a language, that without shame, absorbs words, idioms and traditions from almost any other language or culture.
This is English, the language from slums and Shakespeare, crude jokes and gadgets, technology and poetry, exploration and solitude.
This is the language that all are welcome to participate in – and by participating, we make it our own and as individuals we embody and express ourselves and our experiences and the language itself becomes richer, deeper and more solid.
As Joy Harjo, the Native American writer (and jazz musician) put it “Language IS culture”. The language and culture I know best is that of the United States – where we play with, distort and invert our language.
English, American English in particular, is a pastiche; a motley collection of words, terms and constructions lifted or chopped out of other languages and cobbled together to make up a language a child could use – or a scholar could dissect endlessly.
Of course all of this embarrasses our more proper British cousins.
We, Americans (and those who struggle to speak like us) hold onto words like “ain’t” and invent parallel fictional languages like Klingon.
This is the language I know and love; the language of minimal and sometimes contradictory rules, the language of improvisation and invention, the language that oozes with nearly incomprehensible slang and idioms. For better or worse, this is my home, this is who I am.
Sometimes I tell my ESL students that I feel sorry for anyone learning English.
And in a sense, I do; English can be a baffling, confusing and frustrating language – it can also be a deeply, continuously rewarding adventure into the past as well as the future. It can equip you to talk to the person next to you or be your ticket to friendships, travel or a career around the world.
In short, language is how we connect with other people. Learning any language well is hard work – but it is definitely worthy of our efforts.
A living language never stops changing, and we, as users of language, can never stop learning. Words and their meanings keep shifting before our eyes.
Language is the most important thing we can create and share. Our work is never finished.
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