A Non-native Speaker’s Perspective of the English Language

A former president in an Asian country felt compassion for a man on death row. On the hour of the man’s scheduled execution, the president was asked by his chief of staff if the execution should proceed. He was in the middle of a meeting, and mouthed the words ‘don’t hang him’ to his chief of staff sitting across the room. The chief of staff could not read lips. Exasperated, the president pulled a piece of paper from his notepad and, being notorious for his terrible usage of the English language, wrote ‘Don’t, hang him’. And so the story goes about the last man to be executed through the death penalty in that country. The president had good intentions but the chief of staff understood punctuation. What makes it more sad than funny is that it is possible that the story is true. Many of us who learnt English as a second language may have learned to read, write and speak the language, but very few of us can think in it. We learn English grammar from the time we start school, and yet, native speakers still find it difficult to understand us when we speak their language. We write with no heed for punctuation, and when we do remember to use it, we give new meaning to well intentioned thoughts. How a message is conveyed is based on the culture of the speaker, even when she speaks in a language that is not her own. We speak English but think in our own native language. I have attended a wedding reception where a local band sang the most popular song at the time, Separate Lives, without thinking about what the lyrics meant. I have listened to a eulogy in which the speaker was talking about the deceased’s faith in God and in his effort to drive home his point, referred to the man as being ‘literally on fire’ when what he really meant was that he was passionate and fired up in the Christian faith. He cremated him by his words alone, well meaning as they may have been. The small congregation of family and friends laughed, and the poor speaker had no idea why. To us, a banana is a fruit, and nuts are snack foods. It does not have anything to do with the state of mind, or an appendage in the human anatomy. A house is any structure with a roof and where people live. It is not a type of abode. We do not talk about the weather because it’s practically the same all year round in our part of the world. We do not mind talking about shape, colour or size. That is why being politically correct does not exist when we speak English. We simply translate what’s on our mind to another language. Our journey with English is further made interesting by the various versions of it, so from British, American to Australian English, we learn the language anew by unlearning some of it each time. Hopefully we don’t hang someone in the process.

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