English is my native language even though as related in a previous blog, my father tried to cram Spanish into my brain at a very early age. He did this by repeating sentences to me—the same way I learned English. This is the way we all learn our basic language habits. We have no idea why or how we’re saying the things—we’re just saying them because they work. By the time we are five years old, we have a pretty solid working vocabulary to get our needs taken care of in our daily lives. If language doesn’t work, we simply cry and that always seems to do the trick.
By the age of ten we can pretty well say anything we want in any situation. Then like me later on, some of us major in English in College. We read a lot of literature and poetry and interpret what the author really means. We learn grammar but we really don’t go into it very deeply.
I followed the above pathway and considered myself rather literate in my native language of English. I fell in love with writing and wanted to try and make it my living. This was good but like many people, language really led me by the nose rather than the other way around. I wasn’t sure of myself at all. Many people take workshops and approach the art of writing as though it were some form of write by numbers. You learn formulas and write formally and that will keep people in tow.
I was lucky though and didn’t follow that route. At an early age, I began living in foreign countries. I discovered teaching English as a Foreign Language as a way of keeping from starving to death when I lived in Mexico, Cuba and France. However, that’s when I really began for the very first time to turn my language around and look at it from a distance.
My students in those foreign countries would ask me the dreaded question “Why?” and I found I had no idea. They didn’t want rules; they wanted to know what was behind the rules. I had done the same thing when I studied Spanish and French. Well, those languages I found out could tell me why. Their rules and their explanations matched. For example, in Spanish the vowels A, E, I, O, U have exactly one way of being pronounced and that was that. I found my English language students would ask me why in English we pronounce the letter A in the words Canada or banana differently. In Spanish, each A is pronounced AH—but in English it is Can-uh-duh and buh-nan-uh.
Then they ask me why you have a verb in English like RUN, which means to go from one place to another fast, but if you add a preposition or adverb after it, the meaning changes completely. For example: to run away, to run into, to run across, to run after, to run from, to run over, run along, run around, run down, to run off, to run around with, run down etc. etc.
Oh, my goodness! I couldn’t answer such questions. It took my going to Cambridge and studying linguistics to find out that when pronouncing English words, the accented syllable in English is pronounced A, E, I, O, U but the unaccented syllables are generally pronounced UH.
Then I found out that with most verbs in English, you can add a preposition or adverb (find + out) and it will change the meaning of the base verb to something completely different. These are called idioms and they are a big problem for non-native speakers. They have to learn them and the bad news is that there are over 25,000 of them. Then as if that isn’t enough, they’ve got other idioms to conquer such as: you’re pulling my leg, drop me a line, keep an eye out for, raining cats and dogs, and spill the beans and several thousand more of those sorts of things.
So, if you are teaching English, you have got to inform your students from the get go that 85 per cent of English is pronounced UH—and that’s the reason we native speakers are such rotten spellers. Then they’ve got to know that their job of learning all those postposition prepositions and adverbs hanging on to verbs is like scaling and conquering Mount Everest.
An idiom, therefore, is a group of words that is different from its literal meaning. You cannot translate an idiom word by word.
So, how can knowing all this help one as a writer? It can make you aware of how your language works, which in turn will make you more in charge of what you write. Since my days of teaching English as a Foreign Language, I now feel much more comfortable with my writing as opposed to being afraid of it. Also, if you’ve flown off to Paris or elsewhere to write the great American novel, knowing all this stuff will make it easier for you to gain a few bucks to keep a roof over your head.
Hang in there. Don’t hang up. And in Paris, it’s good to hang out at Shakespeare & Co. bookstore.