I speak English. I speak good English. I’ll go so far to say I even speak it well. I’ve been to many parts of the United States and have been able to communicate thoughts to residents and strangers with full understanding between us. My speech is devoid of accent, most of the time. I grew up in a military family. I’ve encountered people from various cultures, whose language use strongly impressed my very young mind. Numerous and diverse language experiences from my own home to my friends’ homes, to grade school, to college, and into the working world have formed a hefty stockpile from which I have drawn to use as I see fit.
In the beginning, I didn’t speak English. I was born in the Philippines. My native language is Tagalog. However, my dad is American and speaks only English, and as a child, Tagalog slowly faded from my consciousness. My mom told me in the shift from Tagalog to English, I spoke gibberish. I spoke good gibberish. It didn’t even seem like a hybrid of the two languages. “Words” such as tutawkaw (too-TOU-kou) and putinanos (pu-tee-NAH-noos) were a part of my vocabulary. Those were words I said often, and with much gusto, according to my mother. What do they mean? My mom has no idea. When she reminded me of my own little world where I spoke my own little language, I looked her disbelievingly.
Broken English can be good English. My mother, an immigrant, had to adapt to America and find a way to communicate with her husband, her daughter, and society. She taught me at a very young age how to read. Word pronunciations and uses were either right or wrong. At age three, I wasn’t yet keen to the greys and nuances of usage. Before I was old enough to go to school, I’d sit down to Sesame Street, twice a day, and watched how they pushed letters together to form words. I’d correlate voiceovers in commercials to the product logos. My mind perked at subject-verb conjugation (because it wasn’t perfect at the dinner table); streams of words to form ideas and images and to tell stories. Broken English was where I started, but I soon discovered, with my mom and dad’s help (and television), a world where English was better.
New words intrigued me, especially big ones. Sometimes it seemed to me more important to know how to pronounce a word than to know its definition, at least at first. In first grade I got in trouble for saying “ferocious!” because in my workbook a big, green sea monster was saying it – the word was in huge, handwritten print in a dialogue bubble – and I was trying to figure out under my breath how to pronounce it. Then I just blurted it out, and I couldn’t reconcile being punished for sounding out correctly such a big word.
Diction isn’t the same as usage. Word choice was more heavily emphasized in much of my schooling. So many vocabulary words and quizzes and tests. I had a decent mental wordbank through high school. As a college student, when I saw a word I learned in grade school, I used to be able to recall when I learned it: goulash: 6th grade; termagant: 11th grade; sophomore: 10th grade (only because my English teacher quite haughtily connected her students to sophomoric behavior). My language usage seemed basic during grade school, but effective enough. I remember placing 2nd place in a writing contest in 4th grade, which is also when I started noticing words such as cool and awesome, not referring to temperature and inspiring awe. I don’t remember how, but I learned quickly to use those words among friends, and not with adults, and definitely not in my homework. I could get away with slang and still speak good English, but I had to reserve my better English for school.
In 11th grade I came across words like litotes, alliteration, hyperbole, synecdoche. It was in that class where I began to learn how to maximize the words I had collected over the years. Figures of speech really opened my eyes to words being at my disposal, to suit a purpose, to create an effect, to evoke a reaction. Simile:”Losing that friend was like a punch in the stomach.” Oxymoron: Strong gentleness; deafening silence. A completely new world of expression and communication opened up to me. This was also the year I discovered the author Annie Dillard. My eyes seemed instantly to laser-focus on her flowing, descriptive passages of nature and truth, and I became a lifetime fan of her writing.
11th grade also offered me the opportunity of taking French. Here I learned about infinitives and understood them better than in my English classes. During the news one evening, a quirky segment about language aired and discussed the “hard rule” against splitting infinitives. Language has evolved such that placing an adverb between to and a verb doesn’t matter. I remember that newspiece thoroughly fascinating me. I felt sorry for the infinitive. I wanted it to forever keep its structure. I have since caved in my conviction.
What I thought was marvelous was being able to use language tools anywhere, to any degree. I wouldn’t have to seem ignorant or pretentious in any situation. I realized that “toning it down” or “raising it up” ([language] in certain situations) took equal amounts of effort. I learned my freshman year of high school that y’all and all y’all and you all and you guys and everybody here are all acceptable, in increasingly broader audiences. This was in Jacksonville, Florida, where fixin’ to and might could were common, but the military presence balanced the Southern drawl.
I learned in college not to cringe when someone responded “I’m good” to a question about how he was. I made friends from different countries, noting different accents and vocabularies and grammar constructions. I’ve learned to be less judgmental of how others use language. I’ve adapted. I’m not the stuffy grammarian I thought I was. I’ve discovered how fun it is to give adjectives verb forms: vaguing up a story; terriblizing a situation; my friend facetes all the time (the archaic adjective form of facetious). I’ve also learned the difference between coke and pop and soda; creek and “crick.” I learned to hate, hate, HATE passive voice, because majoring in microbiology disenchanted me. Passive voice, to me, isn’t good English; it’s floppy.
I still won’t cross certain lines from conversation to formal writing, but if the lines are fine or blurred enough, I’ll test them. Conversation doesn’t necessarily have to be spoken. My online journal – blog – has a very casual, informal voice at times. Other times, I write with a more serious tone and organized structure. Both types of writing reach the same audience. This audience usually knows what to expect, but occasionally I’ll insert a frustrated dude in a persuasive essay; or I’ll use a word like flagellation in some cutesy thoughts about tadpoles (which I haven’t written yet; it’s just an idea).
Lie, lay sometimes confuse me still, as does when to use as and like. Good/well, bad/badly occasionally trip me up. I’ve become more lax about ending sentences with prepositions. I thought I had a good grasp of punctuation, but it seems I could use more practice. I might have to approach English as I did when I was first learning: more reading, writing and speaking. More and continued exposure to different cultures and their perceptions of language. I couldn’t ask for anything more than living here in New York City. It’s just that my brain isn’t as absorbent as when I was two years old. Sometimes I wish the gibberish would reemerge and the meanings would reveal themselves, so they could be a part of my working stockpile, too.
Dictionaries every year get thicker, not only because more clumped letters become “words,” and those words become acceptable, but also along with the definitions are extensive usage explanations. Ain’t is a word, and the dictionary explains why. When rules were stricter, language seemed simpler. I used to be a member of this camp, but it seemed to exclude a lot of people and what they could offer to language. It’s because of the greys and the increasing flexibility of words that English is as rich as it is. I appreciate the choice of whether to use certain words in particular situations. I can no longer go back to limited options. Some may say the language is getting out of control, but it’s more enabling. Some may say English is breaking (not like my mother’s broken English), but it is merely bent. It is resilient, more pliable. I speak it. I speak it well. As the recent saying goes, “It’s all good.”