8.24.2008

How can a non-English speaker say that native speakers don't speak correct English?

Someone told me that their European relative who came to visit the US said that many people didn't speak "correct" English. Sorry to say this, but that's a stupid comment from someone who has never lived in the US, and doesn't speak English as a first language. What's unbelievable is that the person who made that comment doesn't even speak English well, so how would they know that people don't speak English "correctly" here?

I think it's because they assume that if Americans don't speak like a textbook, then they're not speaking English "correctly". If they'd bother to spend a decent amount of time here, they'd notice the varieties of English and not hold people to their high, unrealistic standard. Most people don't speak like textbooks, no matter what language they speak.

I'd like to see that person interact with a wide variety of Americans, and see how the Americans would react. I doubt the Americans would walk away thinking, "That person speaks correct English."

14 comments:

Ryan said...

No population of speakers have a perfect command of their language. This certainly includes the British. I find that people who criticize native speakers of a foreign language they are trying to speak are often trying to make up for the fact they they themselves cannot speak it as well as they would like. People who are good at English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. usually don't have big problems with the different accents.

mj said...

Agreed--and it's ignorant to say that they don't speak "correctly" when they can't even speak well.

lumpenscholar said...

Maybe it's a matter of conflating grammatical English with correct English. Still, a silly criticism.

mj said...

Yeah--I thought the same thing. But the person who said it seems like one of those "I'm a European who's better than Americans" type of person, so who knows what they really think.

Sarah M Dillon said...

This is so not worth getting upset over! Anyone who makes a comment like that clearly doesn't know anything about languages, including their own. No language, English or otherwise, is associated with a 100% grammatically homogenous group of people.

No biggie, they've only shown up their own lack of language awareness. ::shrugs::

mj said...

I wasn't upset, just wanted to share some language drama here :D It's a common comment, but when it was combined with a snobby attitude towards the US, it made it more conspicuous.

Lilly said...

Ohhh...interesting topic :-D I haven't visited for a while due to work...

I think a lot of non-native speakers think a lot more about their use of a particular language than a given native speaker does. That might be why some non-native speakers are much more focused on/obsessed with grammatical errors etc. even if no meaning is lost in the sentence/conversation. Personally, I make LOTS of mistakes every day when I speak and write English (and Danish too; though I make a conscious effort not to!) and whenever I realise I have made a mistake, it annoys me! It's often laziness or simply a lack of focus that will trigger an error. I think some people are more obsessed than others...but I also know, for instance, from my husband (who is Scottish) that say here in Denmark, we learn A LOT more English grammar than they do in the schools in the UK. I don't know how much time is devoted to English grammar in the US etc. but it's an interesting point. I think it has a lot to do with whether it's another language you're acquiring, or whether it's your own language that you're simply ... I don't know learning to master better?
I recall the first time I went to London, after many years of TEXTBOOK English in school -- it was a shock to hear 'real English' spoken in a non-textbook context. WOW! And I certainly did notice many grammatical errors amongst the native speakers. At first it surprised me because I was convinced that they'd know their own language and master it perfectly -- but today (older and wiser!), of course, I realise that the number of grammatical errors in my own everyday Danish speaking world is at least as big.

And no, I am not going to go over what I have just written to check for mistakes! Sometimes typos and langauge mistakes are charming and funny -- and they often work as a perfect ice-breaker :-D

Although I attempt to write and speak 'proper English' and 'proper Danish', I love the fact that language is dynamic!

mj said...

I've never spoken to you (though I hope to meet you sometime), but your written English is great--better than many native speakers.

Lilly said...

Ow, MJ, you are so sweet for saying that :-D

Aye, it'd be cool to meet some time. I was tempted to volunteer for the interviews in connection with the anthology you're putting out. Yet somehow I didn't...I can get very self-conscious when I know I am being recorded. And in a foreing language! Maybe next time. After a glass of wine -- or two! ;-)

mj said...

If you still want to be interviewed, let me know. I can do it in the evenings, and it doesn't take long.

Flávia Magalhães said...

Hi

I'm Brazilian and study English as a second language. I found your article very interesting because I have always had contact with foreigners but had never talked with a non-native Portuguese speaker and when I got the chance to do it I noticed how weird it is to speak "like the books" instead of the way it is really spoken by natives.

First time here in your blog. And I liked it.

mj said...

Obrigada. I've been to Brazil a couple of times, and at one point I could speak it okay. Now I don't speak it but still read it.

rusaxa said...

Unless, of course, by 'European relative' you mean... English? Natives of England may speak slightly better English than Americans. Just saying.

mj said...

"European relative" meaning someone from the Continent. I think the relative was from Belgium.