Sunday, August 11, 2013

The last of the native English speakers

Growing up with two English teachers as parents was an assault at every spoken and written word. I was a little verbally abused you could say, and every request was an argument in semantics. "I don't know, can you go to the bathroom? Why can't you? What's stopping you?" and I couldn't leave the dinner table until I asked if I may use the bathroom. My childish handwritten diaries were subject to a red pen, correcting "my mom maks me sad" to "makes me, and we already talked about this -- you can't wear your Eid dress to bed."

Despite all that I still can't tell my dangling modifiers from my participals and other grammar constructs (just like any other native speaker!), but I would gander that my grasp of English will just do for my parents (which means it may be above average). I know how to correctly use a colon and its slightly more confusing semi-colon significant other; I even know when to spell "its" without an apostrophe, imagine that.

Now, my parents tortured poor little me and teased my pronunciation of "silhouette" until I reached a level where I could catch them speaking unawares and tease them back. What we all didn't realize is that my parents were also turning me into a little English snob.

The only reason why my snobbery didn't run full-fledged out into the wild to pull the pigtails of second-language speakers is because English is a really hard language. When my Malaysian classmates ask me a question or say a sentence that makes perfect sense in Malay, I can't explain why it doesn't translate into English (and vice versa). Then I read Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (from Iowa, represent) and decided that English is truly awful and its evolutionary path makes no sense whatsoever.

When I find myself to be the only native speaker in a room, I allow minor (very teeny weeny) little errors (which aren't errors when you think about how English started) pass over my head peacefully, so that conversation may resume unhindered, and people are left unoffended (a word I just made up purely because its use was necessary).

Why yes I think I really could use a messes, I feel so tense.

But in the last couple of years I have found myself to be one of the few (if not the only) native speaker in entire departments and companies. While I learned and worked, made friends and laughed, sometimes I feel a little alone when I catch these glorious gems of almost English. Like that time someone claimed that another colleague didn't know jackpot about their task, or how someone insulted another colleague on their face.

One of my previous managers was the best. She would run through all her expressions and proverbs unfettered and only occasionally glanced at me for an imperceptible nod or shake of the head. Once she was giving a pep talk and told us to win our customers over "with your sweet teeth" with a decided nod and casual glance at me. At the slight shake she went on, "with your sweet mouth. Your sweet lips? Your sweet tongue." Finally I coughed "sweet talk" and she exclaimed "Precisely! You will win them with your sweet talk, that's what I've been saying this whole time!" and we would whoopah and get on with it.

At another job a British vendor made the mistake of accusing a colleague's diligent follow-up to be "harassment." The Brit reported it to our HR and regional managers. What he didn't realize is that this company is predominantly second-to-third language English speakers who mostly understood harassment in the context of sexual harassment and just filed that complaint away quietly and confusedly. When that same British vendor came after me the managers waved it off as a mad mans' ranting. "Don't worry, we know this guy, he's crazy. Last year he accused us of sexual molestation even though we only emailed him, he doesn't know what he is saying." I nodded in appreciation and kept my laughter stifled until I got home and cackled till the neighbors complained. Harassment! Hah!

Maybe all those years my parents teased me growing up was because they couldn't tease their students in the same way (and they sure as hell couldn't tease their colleagues or managers either). Maybe one day when I have my own bilingual kids and I'll language-bully them to death too.

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