Updated: Apr 29
I teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL) as my day job. I have travelled around Asia and am familiar with several languages, and speak at a conversational level for others.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: English is the easiest and most functional language to learn . . .
. . . but the hardest to speak correctly.
Allow me to explain: English is spoken as an additional language all around the world. It is incredibly difficult to travel somewhere and not see some English. This far-reaching presence gives English a quality that many languages don’t have: flexibility.
English is a flexible language. Can you speak English with an accent and still be understood? For the most part, yes. Words in English can be pronounced differently while still being understood, which means EFL learners don’t have to pronounce words exactly the way a native English speaker would in order to communicate.
Can you speak English and substitute some words/phrases for local slang, and still be able to communicate? For the most part, yes. English is spoken all over the world as a first language, and in even more places as an additional language. This means that every region has its own unique brand of English. A simple explanation of what each slang phrase means, and it’s easily integrated into everyday speech.
Can you speak English, make grammar mistakes, and still be understood? Of course. Even native English speakers routinely make grammar errors when they speak, and some of those common errors are slowly being integrated into the English language ("I seen this thing the other day").
Most other languages don’t have these qualities. With other languages, there is very little margin for error in terms of grammar. You need to say something almost perfectly in order to be understood. Pronunciation? With other languages, you need to practice your pronunciation so much because if you speak with an accent, then you won’t be understood.
This makes English both flexible, and functional. English is a functional language. You learn a few words here and there, and you’re good to communicate. With the bare minimum knowledge of English, a person can go into the world and go about their business. Your grammar doesn’t have to be on point in order to get what you need in a conversation. You can even speak with an accent!
Let's go into my EFL classroom now.
This flexibility in English makes the need to correct pronunciation in my classes somewhat . . . uncomfortable. When I teach EFL kindergarteners, their parents explicitly state that they want me to train their child to speak like a native English speaker. This means correcting their pronunciation. Now, I’m all for correcting pronunciation when a word is outright being pronounced wrong. Like, it’s important to learn how to pronounce words like “bed” and “bad” lest there be confusion (“I want to sleep on the bad”).
But parents explicitly want me to correct their child’s accents. Like, when they pronounce words in an accent, the parents want me to correct them so they sound like they speak English as a first language.
There’s something uncomfortable about that to me because pronouncing words with an accent isn’t wrong.
It’s a matter of social class.
By “social class,” I mean to bring in the most controversial aspect of English: it’s a classist language.
Think for a moment of people you know who use poor grammar. Maybe you went to school with them, maybe you work with them, maybe you just know them. They’re always making grammar mistakes. What do you think of this person?
I’ll get the ball rolling: maybe you think they’re not super smart. If someone says, “I seen this thing the other day,” then do you think they are kind of “stupid?”
English is an easy, functional language to learn. So why all the grammar nuances? Why all the obscure punctuation rules? Why are there so many silent consonants in words? Why are parents asking me to “fix” their child’s accent?
Simple: all these rules act as a barrier. A glass ceiling, if you will. English’s unnecessary complexity is about setting some people up to succeed, while setting others up to fail.
Language isn’t just a tool that we use to communicate, share ideas with, conduct trade using, no. Language also acts as a barrier and promotor of discrimination. Think of the book Pygmalion, where all it takes to get Eliza to the heights of society are a few language classes to correct her guttersnipe way of speaking.
There are so many reasons to simplify English as a language, and to do away with a lot of obscure grammar and punctuation rules. It makes sense to simplify the language so that we don’t have to deal with silent “P’s” and “B’s.” The question becomes . . . why don’t we? Sure, it might be difficult, sure it might take some time, but there’s a larger reason than logistics: people who speak English well are considered smarter than other English speakers.
Which is ridiculous when most of the "rules" and "exception to the rules" add nothing to the actual functionality of English as a language.
They only contribute to creating class divisions, and barriers.
Think about a job resume. A person might be perfectly capable of doing a job, but if an employer sees a grammar mistake on their resume, they’ll be remiss to hire that person. Why? If a person doesn’t know the difference between “affect” and “effect,” does that really mean they can’t work? For that matter, does it mean they can’t communicate? If someone uses these two wrong, the meaning is still clear.
The fact we care about it and might make judgements about a person’s intelligence based on whether or not they know this rule (or others like it) is discriminatory in nature. After all, that resume might be written by someone who speaks English as an Additional Language, someone who has dyslexia and struggles with reading/writing, or maybe it’s written by someone’s who’s never needed to use those words before and just doesn’t know the difference. Right there: racism, ableism, and straight up douchebaggery.
Isn't it strange that if this non-essential bit of knowledge isn’t demonstrated in a job resume, it can affect the person’s chances of earning a livelihood?
Of course, there are some jobs where knowing grammar is essential—but there's a difference between assessing the level of English necessary to do a job, and making a snap judgement about a person's intelligence based on if they know a few useless rules or not. There are many jobs where a certain proficiency is required. If you’re going to be a line editor for novels, then having a working knowledge of grammar is necessary. If you’re going to be writing for a newspaper, or be a news anchor, or have any other profession where perfect grammar and punctuation is useful, then it makes sense that having grammar is an area to be judged on during a job interview (until we do away with all the weird rules, anyway). When my friends and family correct my grammar in this blog, it’s useful because they’re my unofficial line editors.
But let’s think about people who are posting their personal thoughts on social media. Let’s think about people applying for jobs where perfect grammar isn't necessary, who maybe don’t have the luxury of hiring or asking someone to read it over. Let’s think about people who are just living their lives, and who are made to feel stupid by Grammar Nazis. Let’s think about grown adults who get lectured about their grammar by undergrads who think because they have a university degree, it gives them license to correct grammar without invitation. Let’s think about people who get laughed at for their accents, or when somehow an accent makes a joke funnier.
It’s no wonder the parents of my students wanted me to “fix” their child’s accents. Those accents are punchlines to jokes at best, and barriers to a career abroad at worst.
How many hundreds to thousands of dollars does a grammar/pronunciation/spelling mistake cost in lost wages, even if the results are innocuous?
I am a native English speaker, university educated, and I’ve been a little too proud at times about my command of the English language. There are certain behaviours I’ve had to unlearn, and some I’m currently working at unlearning. Heck, I’ve been called out on some behaviours, which is uncomfortable. But being a better person is an ongoing process, right?
So here are some challenges for you, ones that I’m also working on. Think of it as a self improvement challenge we can do together.
CHALLENGE ONE: if you hear/see improper grammar in everyday life (talking with friends, posted on social media, etc.), let it slide, unless you know for a fact the person would appreciate being corrected (IE: if they asked for help).
CHALLENGE TWO: if you think a joke would be funnier if you told it with an accent, maybe analyse why that is, and rethink whether or not an accent is necessary. Same thing if you find an accent funny.
CHALLENGE THREE: if you’re hiring for a job and notice a mistake, ask what command of the English language is really necessary for the job you’re hiring for, and if the severity of the mistake is really indicative of the person's ability to do the job.
CHALLENGE FOUR: if there are certain minor grammar/pronunciation/punctuation pet peeves that make you really upset, work on letting them go. They're not hurting anybody,
CHALLENGE FIVE: if you’re a native English speaker with a good command of the English language, be open to helping people. We still live in this world where English acts as a barrier. So, to throw a bandaid on the situation, think of it as unofficial volunteer work to step up and use your skills to consult, edit, and teach people so that they can get jobs, and communicate as well as they can in English. But here's going back to Challenge One: only do it if you know for a fact the person would appreciate it. A random person on social media probably won't, but a classmate/colleague/friend who you notice is struggling might appreciate the offer of help.
I think there’s a lot we take for granted with English. It’s a difficult language to learn when you focus on every nuanced rule, but that might just be deliberate, and to act as a barrier that promotes discrimination
English is manufactured, and it can be anything we want it to be. Let’s work harder to make it as accommodating, inclusive, and equalising as it can be.