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The Noon Recess, Winslow Homer

A few weeks ago, I finished a month-long course to become a certified English teacher. I had been thinking if I should do this course for a while, and I finally decided to put the money down based on a few factors:

  1. It will supplement my editing work, and especially help me support non-native English writers who might want clarification about their mistakes or errors in writing.
  2. It would help me round out other skills like public speaking.
  3. God damn it, I love being in a classroom.

Luckily, all of those reasons for proved to be true. It was also one of the most intensive learning experiences I’ve ever had. Pedagogical theory, class observations, and lesson planning aside, one of the most absorbing topics was—surprise, surprise—grammar. Though we were all educated adults, we swiftly found ourselves going back to square one of learning English.

Even though I felt confident about knowing what was “right” or “standard” in English grammar, I never had to explain much of it up until now. As an editor, I can mark or fix an error without too much justification required. And if I feel unsure, I can look it up and evaluate any nuances and exceptions and then make a decision. But in the classroom, not only do we have to explain it, we have to do it in the fewest, simplest words possible. Or with drawings. Or gestures. In front of a live audience.

Have you ever had to explain grammar? Most native speakers – English or otherwise – will struggle to explain grammar rules and patterns of their own language. One paradox that kept reappearing in our class discussions was: we have to learn the rules…to teach the rules to students…so that they can sound like native speakers…who probably don’t know (or forgot) the rules.

And English isn’t the same everywhere. It’s not news that Americans sound different from Brits or Australians. But did you know that it’s not just the accents and certain words? Americans don’t use the present perfect tense nearly as much as the British. I was shocked. (I did some research about this and some people theorize that this stems from different perceptions of time and what is considered in the past, which is no doubt shaped by language, which in turn…well, you get it.) The more I analyzed certain constructions, the closer I tried to listen to myself, the more I second-guessed my own use of language. Which do you think you are more likely to say: “I forgot my umbrella” or “I’ve forgotten my umbrella”? I’m not so sure anymore.

All of that is to say that English is difficult. Once you learn all of the grammar, you enter a whole new minefield of missteps the moment you try to speak it out loud. Just watch Ricky Ricardo encounter the fickleness of English pronunciation in this classic clip. I can’t tell you how many times I found myself demonstrating to students how to pronounce words like “choir” (you know, “kwire”) with nothing but a shrug for an explanation.

Which brings me to something I heard Trevor Noah explain on a podcast a little while ago. He summed summed it up so beautifully:

What I love about language is, first of all, it makes you think differently. I don’t think everybody has the exact same personality in every single language if they speak multiple languages. I also find that speaking another language humbles me because I’m far from fluent. So every other language I speak other than [my native language] is me humbling myself. I have to go back to not understanding words. I have to go back to being imperfect. I have to practice, and I stumble, and I’m not as good as I’d like to be. And I think that’s a really valuable idea to have as a human being. You don’t exist in any superior space when you learn other languages. You’re always at the mercy of the native speakers.

I’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms learning language. I know this humbling feeling that Noah is talking about here—the fractured personality, the imperfection, and not least of all the stumbling. But the training course brought me around to the other side of this experience. I can now see the other perspective, the native speaker’s position of authority, and I don’t take this for granted. As tedious and frustrating as it can be to drill the third form of verbs and memorize all of the exceptions, going back to school can open up a whole new part of yourself that you’ve never seen before.

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