English as a Second Language

As most of you know, my parents came from Hungary and neither spoke any English when they arrived (yeah, pronoun agreement–this is a casual essay; grow up). My father was an engineer who took a job as a janitor until he had rudimentary English. To the end of his life, his phone conversations in English consisted of saying “ja, ja,” (which by the way isn’t Hungarian) with the occasional “no” thrown in. My mother’s oral English was always much better. I grew up with Chicago pronounced CHi-cago, we lived in the “vest”  and shopped at Wauns (Vons grocery, which makes no sense because Hungarian does have a v sound so why they switched the w and v sounds I’ll never know.) The past tense with “did” was always used  incorrectly, as in, “I did went.” And my favorite: the day my father walked into a Burger King and ordered a whooper, not a whopper. The poor woman behind the counter tried so hard to keep a straight face.

I laugh at the mistakes they made, not because I’m laughing at them. It’s out of love. Really. English has to be the hardest language to master. With seven different pronunciations of “-ough”, no common-sense spelling (really–Polish vs polish, wind, and a language where “ghoti” can be pronounced “fish”), where use of the subjunctive is considered too complex for regular language, where we have fake rules (never end a sentence in a preposition, conjunctions should never start sentences, never split an infinitive–these are all not real rules of English), where people will argue over “think” vs “thing”, as in “you’ve got another think coming” (it’s “think”–do the research), or that the phrase is “just deserts” not “just desserts” because the word comes from an archaic word desert (think “deserve”), and most native speakers have no idea what they’re saying when they use the old adage “it’s the exception that proves the rule” (that one necessitates the looking up of the definition of prove-what do you think a “proving ground” is?).

So when my mother says nothing bad happened to her, “knock on the door”, instead of on wood, or thinks the famous fruit in Atlanta is the Georgia plum, I laugh, and admire the heck out of her. Because she’s willing to take a risk and communicate in a language that has many native speakers baffled.

Here’s to the risk takers.

–Gabi

Books I’m reading now:

The Sword-edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

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