Last month, we published a story in collaboration with the NPR podcast Rough Translation about nonnative speakers navigating the world of "good" and "bad" English. Dozens of readers wrote in with their own stories about how challenging — and frustrating and rewarding — it can be to learn and teach English.
We're featuring three responses that we found especially insightful: an English professor from India shares an English word she's used for years — not found anywhere in the dictionary; an author points out the politics behind terms like "native language" and "mother tongue"; and an engineering professor discusses why stereotypes about "accented English" are totally hypocritical.
Brave new word
Aparna Gollapudi is a professor of English at Colorado State University who grew up in New Delhi. She used a word in her classroom one day that made her see her relationship to the English language in a totally new way. Here's her story (edited for clarity and length):
A month or two after I began teaching in the U.S., I had to make some changes to the class schedule. "We'll need to prepone the quiz, I'm afraid," I said, steeling myself for the groans from students that were sure to follow.
Instead, there was deafening silence.
I looked around to see blank expressions on my students' faces — that look of "I have NO idea what you just said," which stops any teacher worth their salt mid-lecture to backtrack and explain a concept further.
It was then, in the 33rd year of my life, that I found out that "prepone" was not an actual word in English, based on the dogma that all legitimate words in a language must be found in a dictionary.
I believed that prepone meant the opposite of postpone — moving an event to an earlier time rather than putting off something to a later time. So when I realized it wasn't "proper" English, I was dumbfounded, flummoxed, astounded, nonplussed, flabbergasted (and all the other words in the Oxford English Dictionary that mean "mind blown"). It was akin to a paradigm shift in my linguistic self-image.
I had grown up in India, where fluency in English is synonymous with education and cultural privilege. I was an English major with a robust vocabulary, a "convent school" accent and fondness for reading Dickens, Austen and other such august writers, and my comfort with English had insidiously shaped my sense of self. In a world divided into linguistic "haves" and "have-nots" I definitely knew I was one of the "haves."
But that day in the classroom, my incomprehensible English taught me that being an linguistic "have" is unstable and delusional at best. It is a lesson I have learned many times over since then. From my tendency to confuse pronouncing 'v' and 'w' (vonderful wegetables!), my occasional Britishisms (thrice and not three times) to my initial shock at a TV show titled "Pimp My Ride" (what DO Americans do to their cars??!!) — leaving India took me out of my insulated and privileged linguistic bubble and opened my eyes to the rich world of Englishes rather than "proper" English.
In fact, there are many varieties of English that have developed in previously colonized nations (or in countries currently dominated economically by the U.S.). These countries have taken a language imposed on them by historical circumstances and made it their own. So by acknowledging the validity of these localized or indigenous versions of English instead of just seeing them as "not right," one can begin to subvert the linguistic tyranny that continues long after the actual British empire has dissolved.
In the classroom, I have learned to embrace my occasional linguistic "otherness" with humor. When I stumble while pronouncing some words — woeful virgin, for example (and there are plenty of those in 18th century literature!) I just stop and shrug and say with a grin, "Hang on, folks."
And of course, though prepone is not yet a proper word, it's so very useful and concise that it's a shame to consign it to the heap of Wrong English. So these days, I've made it my mission to popularize this handy little word and tell my students all about it!
Who gets to have the label "native speaker"?
Srikanth Chander Madani is an author with interests in climate change, social equity and the creative arts. Under the pseudonym Karn Kant, he is the author of Encounters of a Slow Traveler: Nietzsche, Hope and Where Are You From. His work addresses the question of identity and "placing people in boxes" — two ideas that can often be tied to language and accent. Madani shares his experiences being asked to prove his language proficiency time and time again.
The words we use to describe the many ways to speak English — like "mother tongue," "native" and "non-native" speaker — are often fraught.
Srikanth Chander Madani is experienced with many languages: "My 'mother-tongue' is Hebbar," Madani says, "a language specific to a certain group of Indians who moved between two linguistic regions centuries ago, with words from Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada."
He speaks English, Hindi, German and French fluently. He's in the process of learning Italian and trying to improve his written French. And he says he's unsuccessfully tried to learn several more languages but "many words [from these languages] and their music" have stayed with him.
Madani has found it frustrating to be so frequently asked to credential his ability to speak languages he is both proficient and prolific in.
"In one instance," he said, "while working at a large Swiss firm, an American manager quibbled at my CV asserting that English was my native language.
" 'Why not?,' I asked."
" 'Because 'native' refers to the language you spoke as a child,' she answered with a tender, patient look."
"I grew up with three languages, as my parents did not share the same 'mother tongue' " Madani says. "And, in any case, how would this manager know what language I grew up with? I was especially miffed as she spoke but one language."
The whole concept of "mother tongue" is a political construct to keep certain people out, says Madani. "[The American manager] did not want someone like me to be in the same club as her."
According to Madani, the hoops that many non-American or non-British English speakers are forced to jump through in order to credential their English seem nonsensical when their American and British counterparts with equal or lesser proficiency are never asked to prove it.
"Having lived in the U.K., I know many whose first (and only) language is English and who make routine errors when speaking and many more when writing," says Madani. "Why should they get a free pass and not be forced to go through a TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] or IELTS [International English Language Testing System]? These tests not only cost money but add to the complexity and time of Kafkaesque processes."
All accents welcome
Sergio Serrano is a professor of engineering science and applied mathematics at Temple University. Having lived in North America for 40 years after growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, Serrano shares his experience speaking English in academic settings and dealing with accent stereotypes.
Sergio Serrano has participated in many international scientific conferences across the globe. "In a typical situation, a group of foreign researchers are discussing a complex technical issue with very precise and elaborate formal English," Serrano says, "until an American joins the group."
In our previous article about speaking English, we discussed research that found understanding goes down in a room of nonnative speakers when a native English speaker joins the conversation. The research found that communication is inhibited in part due to native speakers' use of language not held in common, like culturally specific idioms.
But this scenario doesn't fit with Serrano's experiences of English, where nonnative English speakers who learned the language in a classroom are often more educated on grammar rules and complex technical terms than American native speakers.
For Serrano, when an American joins in a conversation among nonnative speaking scientists, the conversation does falter, but not because the American's language is too complex.
"On the contrary, communication ends because [the foreign researchers] cannot explain to the American, in simple language, the advanced topics they were discussing. Yet, the American takes over the conversation."
Serrano also discusses his experiences being singled out for his accent.
"After 40 years living in North America," he says, "I still encounter the situation when a stranger interrupts me after a few words I spoke to interrogate me: 'You have a strong accent. Where are you from?' It is a continuous reminder that you are forever an alien in your own country."
"I politely explain my origins, and then I add, 'I cannot catch your accent. Where are you from?,' " says Serrano. Indeed, those who single out Serrano for having a "strong accent" seem to be unaware that everybody (themselves included) has an accent.
This article was written in collaboration with Rough Translation, a podcast from NPR whose mission is to "follow familiar conversations into unfamiliar territory." Rough Translation's episode, "How to Speak Bad English," is out now. The podcast is available from NPR One, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify and RSS.