Friday, July 30, 2010

But Isn't English Always Provisional?

A few days ago I downloaded the audiobook version of David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and I've been enjoying listening to it as I walk around Kaifaqu. It's funny and sad, what you'd expect from listening to David Foster Wallace (although it's not really him, is it?) talk about himself.

At home, I've been watching Twin Peaks in my bedroom. What I keep wanting from that show is for it to scare me real bad. Last night I fell asleep with earbuds in during the pilot episode and woke to Bobby and his friend barking at James in the prison, and that scared me real good out of sleep.

What I get from Wallace and Lynch is the feeling that I'm neither crazy nor alone. When I was young, I thought I hated people. I haven't felt that way in a long time. Lately I've been frustrated with my coworkers—namely, the Eastern teachers. Yesterday, as I was teaching a young class in a hot room with no breeze or air, I realized that a great majority of the people I work with are also my students and that it would be ridiculous of me to get mad at them for their poor English, which I've been doing frequently lately. I'm in a weird position: I'm not their boss, but I'm responsible for chasing after them for their mistakes. Most of the time, I feel like a real dick correcting them. But it's not that their English is even poor. When I arrived here, last year, I thought their English was amazing. It must be hard to communicate every day in your second language, I told them. Over time, however, I've listened to and corrected the same mistakes over and over. No, it's not that their English is poor; it's that their English is habitual. Take my Chinese: I understand a lot of the Chinese I hear, and I feel confident speaking it, but what I actually hear, say, and understand is just the same words over and over again, mostly school, food, taxi, and drink lingo. When it comes to other things, I'm in all actuality lost, but because I've been at work every day for weeks, context hardly comes around to other vocabulary. The ETs' English is kind of like that; they've developed a working English that can be understood enough to get them through the day. Now, you could view this—let's call it provisional—English as lazy. Well, not the English but its users: they've gone with what works but not necessarily with what's correct (let's bracket for now the argument that I know comes with that statement). This way of thinking is easy to follow, and on bad days here, I think this way, but it's not productive and will actually sour a day. Further, it may not be an accurate way to think, may not be how language really works or at least how we can usefully conceptualize it as part of the teaching gig. If the ETs get desired result x from this English, it's no wonder that they continue to use it, just like I continue to use my broken-ass Chinese. After all this time, after all day every day speaking English, is it still hard for them?

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