I don't own the English language

A few weeks ago, my husband and I visited Olso, the capital of Norway. It's a beautiful city, set at the head of a long inlet (the Oslo fjord), surrounded by mountains. We loved our visit, as did many other tourists from all over the world.

Oslo fjord
All of the Norwegians that we met spoke English. They spoke with only a trace of an accent, using very respectable pronunciation and perfect sentence structure. When they spoke Norwegian, I could hear that their language is eerily similar to English, especially in its rhythms and tonal variations. It was like hearing English through a special filter--I felt that I just barely didn't understand it. The origins of English are half Latin, half Germanic, and Norwegian is not too far from the Anglo-Saxon dialect spoken in Merrie Olde England.

Surrounded by English, I was soothed by its familiarity. Living in Prague, I hear much more Czech, Russian, German, French, Slovak, and Italian, none of which give me the impression I am among "my people." I was happy.

Then I began to notice something else: not only were the Norwegians we met speaking English to me, they were also speaking it to everyone else! To people from China, Japan, Italy, France, India--everybody was speaking English. Of course, we were staying in an international hotel, in the cosmopolitan capital of a very wealthy country full of business people from all over the word, so my perception was a bit skewed. But even so, it's certainly true that English is the international language of commerce, and will probably remain so for the next decades:

"English will maintain and grow its dominance, moving from “a marker of the elite” in years past to “a basic skill needed for the entire workforce, in the same way that literacy has been transformed in the last two centuries from an elite privilege into a basic requirement for informed citizenship.Indeed, the British Council reports that by 2020, two billion people will be studying English." (from Forbes magazine, http://www.forbes.com/sites/dorieclark/2012/10/26/english-the-language-of-global-business/)

As I listened to conversations in English all around me in Oslo, I heard many in which neither speaker could claim English as their native tongue. For them, English is a tool, not a treasury of literature and cherished family memories. I heard most of the common mistakes of English learners, including incorrect verb tense, misuse of pronouns and articles, overuse of adjective and adverbs to compensate for a limited vocabulary ("very, very, small" instead of "tiny" or "miniscule"), slightly jumbled word order, etc. The English teacher in me cringed to hear these errors. But as I listened, I realized that the speakers were understanding each other quite well, in spite of the imperfections. They used English as a means to communicate, not to make poetry, and they were successful. They weren't trying to pass a grammar exam, they were trying to get a job or make a business deal. Their English was fine for their needs.

I was a bit put out. Humph. How dare they use my language like this, just to get across their point? It was the same as using a sable paint brush to slap some paint on an old fence, or using the best heirloom china to feed the dog. It was an insult. I was outraged.

Then it hit me. English is no more my language than it is theirs. They learned it, they use it, they are happy. Who am I to quibble about the niceties? I should be pleased that my mother tongue has been chosen for use all over the world:
Indeed, even in powerhouse China, more people are currently studying English than in any other country. An incredible 100,000 native English speakers are currently teaching there.

I thought about some of the people I know who use English to communicate but aren't native speakers. I know a married couple, one French and one Finnish. They live in Prague, but use English almost exclusively, even though he works for a German manufacturer and she works as a university lecturer. She told me that it's no problem that neither of them can speak their own language with the other, except that they can't really make jokes.

In fact, I realized that my own Czech-born husband falls into this category. He speaks such fluent English after 40 years of living in the USA that I rarely consider his situation--our entire marriage is conducted in my native tongue, not his. My attempts to learn Czech convinced me that it would take tremendous time and effort at my age to become at all fluent, so we continue in English.

Czech vowel chart
When I put all this together, I understood how foolish it is for me to criticize the English-speaking skills of the billions of people who've learned it in order to use it. If they can manage, good for them. They are free to mold English to their own needs, and it's not my job to correct them. I don't own the English language.


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