Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Speaking English

Forgive me for this rant. I taught English in an  American high school for 16 years before I packed up my furniture, my clothing, and my dried-up once-idealistic dreams and left the country for good.

I can't stand it any more. I'm trying to be kind. I'm trying not to complain. I'm trying to accept that many of my Landsleute just aren't good at English. I know that normal people don't consider it important to use standard language skills when writing publicly (social media, comments on news stories, etc.) in their native language, but as a former English teacher I'm tempted to scratch out my eyes and turn up my tinnitus.

If an American attended grade school - and most of those alive today did - he or she learned was taught proper standard English. Alongside basic addition and subtraction, third grade teachers teach their students the difference between "me" and "I" and when each is needed. We ALL learned that, when in doubt, remove the other person and see how the sentence makes sense. For instance:
The police want to talk to Chuck and I. (Removing "Chuck," does it make sense?)
Sam and me are going to the beach today. (Removing "Sam," does it make sense?) 
This is not rocket science, folks. It's American English, and it's your native language. I get it that foreign languages are just too hard, and too expensive to teach judging from the amount of school districts eliminating them from their curricula due to budget cuts. But should people not be expected to at least know and speak their own language better than a non-native speaker?

I will never - NEVER - fault a non-native speaker of English for making mistakes in this crazy language. But most mistakes Germans (for instance) make when speaking English are vocabulary, word order, or pronunciation errors. I have never heard a non-native speaker say "Me and Frank..." as a way to start a sentence, as I have never heard a native speaker of German say the equivalent = "Mich und Frank..."

Side grammar note: Do not EVER say "me and...". It is NEVER correct. Please trust me on this.

Americans say "me and..." all the time. The Germans even have a saying for that one:
"Nur ein Esel nennt sich selbst zuerst." ("Only an ass mentions himself first.")

When exchange students head over to the U.S., I'm tempted to beg them "Do not copy the English of the people you'll meet or what you hear on TV!" They will return to their English classes at their German schools and fail tests because crappy English will sound ok to them. I am not talking about accents or dialect; I'm talking about "I have went," "lay down," "less friends," and "there's three..." among others.

The other day I went to a German Facebook group I follow where the main language is German, and I saw a post in English. It happens now and then and is not a problem. But this guy's post was a poor display of English, and when a German responded to his question, her English was just fine. The American responded with worse English, erratic capitalization and little punctuation creating a run-on sentence, and the German responded again briefly in perfect English, using standard punctuation and capitalization as well as nailing the correct use of "you're."

I realize the guy who set me off this time might have a disability, and I shouldn't judge. M asked me if I'm sure he's American, because a German could have written his question as well. While he was asking me that I clicked on the guy's name and showed M his title picture - a big ass bald eagle. "Well, ok then."

There are too many American TV shows aired in Germany, and although the voices are dubbed into German, you can often still hear the American English in the background. The German speakers actually correct the grammar in the voice-over translations. "Me and Sam know each other real good" becomes "Sam und ich kennen einander sehr gut" (Sam and I know each other very well). "Him and I's first truck was a Ford" becomes "Unser erster Lastwagen war ein Ford" (Our first truck was a Ford).

"Him and I's truck"?!?!  What the hell?  I do not care if you didn't go to college. I do not care if you didn't graduate from high school. In third grade you were taught how to use possessives, and "I's" was not on the list.

We English teachers can only do so much. We have our students' attention for at most 20 minutes a day during the nine-month school year (not including Homecoming week, March Madness, Prom week, or days right before and after long weekends or holiday breaks). During the rest of their day and days they are hearing their friends, siblings, and parents speak and listening to songs written by people who don't know the rules of English grammar any better than they do. Just the other day I heard "In the end it's just me and you" sung repeatedly in a song my husband said is on the radio all the time. Super.

(found on google images - sorry for the totally lame attempt at citation)

While the above graphic makes me grin a little, it's really not one's education that is "at fault." I use standard (American) English because it was important to my family and because I care enough to do so. If it hadn't been important to my parents and grandparents, perhaps I wouldn't know the difference between its and it's or how to use I and me. Perhaps I wouldn't look up the spelling of a word when I'm not sure. And perhaps I wouldn't proofread what I write.*

But I do, and hearing and seeing so many errors so frequently bothers me as much as it would bother some people to look at someone with a mis-buttoned shirt, to hear metal scraping on concrete, or to watch an entire movie with the lip-sync out of whack. We all have our quirks, and I guess this is mine.

My mom patiently explains why it's not ok to say "Me and my brother..."
while my brother whispers, "Learn it now, Kid. It'll make your life a lot easier later on."

Please know: it is never too late (or too early) to learn your own native language and how to use it well.

*Do I still find mistakes after sending or publishing something? Darn it, yes. Where possible, I go back and fix them. Occasional mistakes and typos are one thing (or two). Not knowing or not caring how to speak and write your native language correctly is something else that we English teachers and language lovers just can't understand.

So much irony...

If you see anything awkward or a typo in one of my blog posts, do let me know! My parents quickly catch most of my mistakes, though. :-)


  1. Oh, goodness, do I ever hear you. These things give me a headache when I see or hear them. I was listening to AFN today while I was working. The announcer said "Her and I went to..." several times.

    I also made the mistake of allowing someone else to make a flyer for a training session I was giving. I was conducting training for my group and invited participants from another group. My contact from the other group made a flyer for me because apparently my email, which said the same exact thing (albeit in a grammatically correct manner), was not informative enough. I didn't have time to make the flyer so I thanked my contact for the show of helpfulness. When I read the flyer she sent, I felt sick. It said, "Have you got plans for..." That was a lesson to always make my own flyers in the future! I can't blame my contact for being helpful, but I can blame myself for not creating the marketing materials that represent my group.

    1. Was she British? My mother-in-law is from northern England, and we have discussions all the time about the many differences between American and British English. "I have got plans/a dog/a headache" is perfectly acceptable in British English - and they were here first! :-) Whenever I had German penpals with my American students, they used "I have got" because the German English teachers taught British English. When she and I work together on a translation, she has to correct my American spelling!

      I've started a list of Britishisms and Americanisms based on our conversations, and someday I'll start a thread about that!

  2. No, both of the people I mentioned are American. I read that it's okay in idiomatic use, but for whatever reason, it bothers me.

    I took part in a linguistics experiment and the written portion was in British English. Have you noticed that British speakers use a lot of "isn't it" type expressions at the end of a sentence? It reminds me a bit of the German "oder." Anyway, there was some expression on the test that I had absolutely no clue how to answer. I've lived in England, have friends from there, and have picked up some of the verbal habits, such as saying "trowsers," "queue," etc. Despite that, I couldn't answer that question. I can't remember what it was, but I was completely flummoxed by it.

    1. Too bad you can't remember it - it would be fun to find out what it meant. That happens often with my Schwiegermutter and me in both directions. One of us will notice the other using a phrase that's unfamiliar, though we're speaking the same language (sort of)! We've had some hilarious moments that still make us giggle. I haven't notice her adding a tag question at the end of a sentence like the "oder?", though.

    2. Oh, goodness. "Trousers," not "trowsers." I've been thinking in too many different languages at one time lately.

  3. On another note: I studied linguistics and sociology in college and am still interested in both topics. I want to compile a list of the things that Germans do/say in conversation. I wonder if some of the things are regional. For example, when I have asked a local lady a question, and the answer is yes, of course (not in a mean way), she says "jo" (the regional variation of "ja"), in a deep voice, pulling her chin back. I wish I had a video of it!

    1. That sounds like an interesting project, and I'm sure a lot of that is regional. The Swabians say a version of "jo" like that also, but I don't think I could spell it accurately. A bit like "jau", rhyming with the "augh" sound in "caught" (in midwest American!). The Swabian version of "gell?" is a hoot, too. It's usually just "ge?", and one cashier at our grocery store hits three musical notes when she says it.

      Have you taken that dialects quiz that Heather in Deutschland posted? It nailed my butt very accurately to Wisconsin. And I thought I didn't have an accent...

  4. My grammar isn't always perfect when I'm speaking (I sometimes drop back into dialect where some non-standard grammar is the norm!), but in writing I at least try to get it right. And I definitely know the difference between Frank and I and Frank and me ;-) I don't ever remember being taught the difference in school though and I feel like a lot of British English speakers default to "Frank and I" even when it's wrong because they've been told once that "Frank and me" is wrong and assume it's wrong in all circumstances. Actually, we were taught very little grammar in school. Same goes for punctuation. Almost all of the British interns we've had at work did not know that you need a comma after "however"... and these are all people who've completed 2 years of a Bachelor's degree (they come to us for their year abroad, which is usually third year).

    Most of my mistakes in writing (blogging) are typos rather than grammar errors (I hope!). Also, I have a habit of typing "me" instead of "my" even though the e and the y are on completely different lines on my German keyboard!. How does that happen?!

    1. I'd blame the "me-my" typo on a British dialect: "Hey look! There's me brotha!" ;-) I fear the "whole language" movement did a lot - at least in the States - to damage English. It became more important to "get your point across" than to use English properly. We traditionalists, however, miss a speaker's point because he said or wrote it so badly! I should have said that grammar _used_ to be taught in 3rd grade and in the following years - maybe it's not any longer. That would explain a lot.

      Commas are actually my downfall, too, and it doesn't help that comma rules are often different between English and German. I also defy some guidelines I recall learning - "Never begin a sentence with 'But'," for instance, though I only do that in creative writing and not formal writing.