Monday, September 7, 2009

On English

This post is largely based on my reply to a post at the blog The Blood-Red Pencil written by guest-blogger, Elsa Neal on August 10. The subject was so close to my heart, though, that I wanted to follow up.

Being Norwegian, and spending a considerable amount of time on international online forums, I run across language issues a lot. Since at the moment I live in the US, I also have language issues offline these days.

When I first started frequenting these online forums, my English was very much at a “high school level” – I could write and speak it reasonably well (actually, quite well, as I’ve preferred reading fiction in English for years, and I do watch a lot of American or British TV and movies), but I would constantly see words or phrases in these forums I didn’t know. Also, looking back, I realize my grammar was occasionally far off… (It still is, but I’m better at hiding it…)

After a while, though, especially when I started writing more continuous texts as opposed to just “chatting”, I got more comfortable using English. At the moment I’m writing my thesis in English, I’m speaking it on a daily basis and I’ve recently started dreaming in English (which was rather disturbing, though this was more related to the content of the dream than the fact that the giant slug was speaking in a foreign language…). When I started this blog I also considered writing it in Norwegian, but I figured that my target-audience in Norway would be able to read it in English anyway, and most of my online contacts seems to be in the English-speaking world. The choice was therefore not all that difficult.

However, I should probably worry a little about what will happen to my native language. It’s not likely I’ll forget how to speak Norwegian, but there is the danger of English grammar or an English way of putting things sneaking into my previously unspoiled bokmål. Since there will come a time when I will want to write books in Norwegian, it would be a shame if I had ruined it completely… You can’t have it both, can you?

I’ve been told that my accent is close enough to the real deal that I could pass off as being American. All the more reason to cast me a funny look when I suddenly use completely wrong words. Yesterday I asked if US ambassadors, like Norwegian ones, had the license to marry someone… The obvious answer is “yes, but only one person at the time.” I never did get an answer on whether they have the license to join a couple in marriage… (Don’t ask how the conversation arrived at that subject. It started with The Sound of Music and sidetracked considerably).

However, there is one advantage to writing in a foreign language. Being unfamiliar with certain terms or phrases forces you to carefully consider what you put down on paper. Each word I use is a potential trap, each time I post something there is the possibility that someone out there is secretly snickering because what I’ve written has a completely different meaning than what I intended. Therefore I revise what I write, I try to find the errors before they occur, and as a result – I not only write better English; I write better.

(Of course, my real secret is to invent new words – it worked for Shakespeare, and I try to learn from the best…)


Galen Kindley--Author said...

I’m not the sharpest pencil in the box, but, I do have a pretty good ear for non-standard English usage. I might add that I found it fascinating and charming when someone who spoke English as a second language told me that she was, “going to study for the exam very diligently.” Isn’t that wonderful? A native speaker would never use diligently in that context, but I think it’s a wonderful usage.

Anyway, to rope in my rambling, my point is I think your English is exactly on target, sounds perfectly normal to me, and if you’d have not “fessed up” to being a non-native English speaker, I would have never guessed. Never. I hope you take that as a compliment…that’s how it’s meant.

Best Regards, Galen
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Cruella Collett said...

I don't only take it as a compliment, I take it as the compliment. To have a native speaker say you speak their language well enough to pass off as one - definitely something I'm proud of.
As a proof that I'm not, though: I wouldn't actually say "going to study for the exam very diligently.", but I wouldn't know that it isn't something other people also would not say. And I couldn't tell you what is "wrong" with putting it that way if my life depended on it. Fortunately, I've yet to come across an axe-desperado giving me that kind of ultimatums. (Fortunately, I haven't come across any axe-desperados at all...)

Chary Johnson said...

I cannot vouch for the way your speak but your writing is very eloquent. You use words that correctly convey your train of thought and your grammar is excellent. I would never have known, from your writing, that your were not a native English speaker/writer.

Cruella Collett said...

Chary - that is very sweet of you, thank you! It means especially much for me coming from someone who teaches English :)

Rayna M. said...

First off, I am not sure if I qualify as a 'native English speaker' or not - I think of myself as one, but others may disagree (but I digress) - but I think your written English lacks the awkwardness that often characterises non-native speakers. Perhaps you need to pause more often than someone who has grown up speaking the language, and maybe you get some of the very specialised stuff wrong at times, but what I read is what I expect to read.

If I hadn't read Curtains, all those many years back, I would have told you that you were fussing too much. But I have seen the slight awkwardness then, and don't see it at all now.

I think you are doing great. Now, whether I have the right to make that statement or not, I would rather not find out.

Cruella Collett said...

It it good to know I have come a long way since then, Natasha! It's funny, though, because I don't think I've ever polished anything I've written (in English or otherwise) quite as much as I did with Curtains.
(And I don't think anyone in their right mind would call you anything but a native speaker - but then again, I fuly acknowledge that I definitely don't have "the right" to make that statement...)

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