If I could share one truism with new speakers of English here in the United States and abroad, it would be this: You are not stupid, no matter how many grammatical errors you make, and nobody is going to see you as stupid. Rather, when you try your hand at speaking English, you’ll be seen as someone who is bold enough to communicate in a language you’re still in the process of learning.
English language learners are the fastest-growing segment of the public school population, with numbers that have nearly doubled to more than five million. Too often, new speakers of English are faced with the unrealistic expectation of mastering grammatical correctness before they begin communicating, which can become understandably frustrating and, ultimately, demoralizing. Our language is complex, filled with exceptions to grammatical rules, non-phonetic spelling, and countless, confounding idioms. If native speakers of English have difficulty conjugating verb tenses with absolute correctness—and they surely do—it’s exponentially difficult for those who are new to the language. Many give up before they have their first conversation with a native speaker for fear of not being understood.
Their concern is unfounded, fueled by the misconception that they need to speak perfectly in a foreign language in order to be understood. But perfection, or anything resembling it, is an unattainable goal in any new endeavor, including language learning.
“Broken English”—an expression I cannot bear—should be stricken from the English language. It insults and stigmatizes those who have made the courageous choice to speak in a new language. It does a huge disservice not only to new English learners, but to native speakers as well; it deprives us all of conversing with and learning about people from other cultures. It’s painful to think how much open communication we in America are missing out on because newcomers are afraid of “getting it wrong.” What we as a race—the human race—is lacking is authentic connection that stems from open conversation. When we write and speak from the heart, without fear of grammatical correctness, we’re giving ourselves and each other the great gift of compassion, of empathy, of the joy that comes from mutual understanding. Language is a living entity that’s meant to bind humans, not separate them. Waiting for that illusive perfection is tantamount to wasting precious time, when we can be happily sharing time with others.
Rather than viewing grammatical mistakes made by the new speaker as “broken English,” I propose that we view it as poetry. Imagine how the confidence of English learners might soar!
How often has a visitor in America put a hand sheepishly to his mouth and said, with eyes averted, “Excuse please, my English.” It’s heartbreaking when a new speaker, struggling to find the right word, slaps his forehead and says, “I am so stupid.” We native speakers need to comfort the person who says this, assuring them there’s no need for shame, even if we believe that we, too, would apologize in much the same way for our own grammatical blunders. While visiting a family in Spain, I wanted to offer congratulations on their daughter’s athletic success, and tell her parents she’s a champion. But I confused the words and said, “Su hija es un champinon,” which translates to, “Your daughter is a mushroom.” While my face grew warm with humiliation, they laughed, understood what I meant to say, asked me to please stop apologizing, and our evening continued.
It’s time for new speakers of any language to dispose of the idea that we can and should speak perfectly before trying our hand at it. And when we do engage in conversation, we must know that the results, whatever they are, will not be broken but, rather, poetic.
I’ve had the great pleasure of helping new learners of English improve their skills through creative writing. I ask probing questions like, can you feel sorrow without collapsing under its weight? And, when have you grasped for hope, only to have it elude you? One passionate former student said he can now write in English with “heart and soul and bones and guts.” These English learners are amazed by their own ability to write deeply with a limited vocabulary and be readily understood. When people write from their heart and let go of the faulty belief that they need to construct the perfect sentence, their confidence grows and real communication takes place.
As one European student wrote, “I want to bite life and devour it and eat it in a fanatic way.” Is this not poetry?
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