The week of March 29, 2015

The trouble with mastering English on the Internet

By S.E. Smith

Most people wouldn’t guess that I grew up speaking Greek. People who study linguistics sometimes tilt their heads, trying to figure out what’s wrong with my accent—why, as a fluent English speaker in California, my voice doesn’t have quite the right pattern. It’s subtle enough that I don’t stand out in a crowd or raise any eyebrows as I shuffle through the security screenings at airports as I criss-cross the country and the globe. I sound, more or less, like someone who has been speaking English all my life.

I nearly have, but it’s Greek I learned first. Only after that did I learn a hodgepodge of British English from the nuns who taught us in our tiny village school, my friend Anna and her German-accented instruction, and the villagers’ determined attempts to test out their English on “the Americans.” This campaign was undertaken by every farmer, shopkeeper, and child in town, right down to the Orthodox priest. The priest loved accosting my father as we walked down to the beach in the hopes of having a deep theological conversation and honing his English skills. Inevitably, my father would steer him gently but firmly back into Greek.

As a language, Greek has come a long way, with far more twists and turns than English, a relatively young language by comparison. For the last 34 centuries, people have been speaking Greek, writing Greek, telling stories in Greek, dreaming up new legends and philosophies in Greek. I didn’t spend very much time on Lesbos, but children have impressionable minds, and long after I left the wine-dark sea for a wind-swept coast on the other side of the world, Greek’s impression lingered.

The plastic minds of children aren’t incredibly adept at learning languages forever. Children suck up everything like a sponge, but at a certain point, their neural connections begin to calcify and slow as they catch up with the rest of us. We happened to live in Greece during a formative period in my life, and while we moved back to the United States in my early childhood, I never left Greece behind.

• • •

When we arrived in the United States, I was put in the slow readers group, along with the brown kids with parents who worked to the bone out in the vineyards or over the steaming hot sinks of local restaurants. They looked at me like I was out of place, with my white-blond hair and blue eyes, and I looked at the teacher like she was racist, which she was, because most of those kids read better than I did. But we all had heavy accents, and I hadn’t performed well on the psych evaluation forced upon new enrollments, so there I was, laboring through Green Eggs and Ham and painstakingly trying to draw out my own picture books with the rest of the ELLs—English Language Learners, that’s what they called us.

Idioms are frustratingly complicated and bound to betray you, making them one of the hardest parts of a language to learn.

I was, in some senses, an ELL, but not in the way they meant it. It wasn’t that I didn’t know English, but rather that I didn’t know the right sort of English. My accent was sometimes hard to understand, my speech littered with a litany of influences from other places. When I struggled to come up with a word, I’d say it in Greek instead, because that was what we’d do at home.

“γάτα,” I’d say, pointing at the cat.

“Yes, that’s a cat,” my father would agree.

It became almost a game with us, one in which I collected words like stars from my father’s vast vocabulary. At school, I still skulked in the back of the classroom with the slow readers, but at home, my father read me chapter books in English, tracing his fingers over the letters, until I sounded out the words aloud.

The first book he bought for me to read on my own was The Phantom Tollbooth, and for days after I finished it, I waited, thinking that a mysterious package would arrive for me to take me on an adventure.

It never did.

• • •

I learned to hide my accent. It’s one of the first things you learn when you come to the United States, and you want to fit in. Assimilate or die. I was promoted out of the slow readers group and moved up to the front of the classroom, where I earned decent marks and slogged slowly through the intervening years of school with varying degrees of success.

I was never an outstanding student. People insisted that I was smart and should try harder, but school never interested me very much, with the exception of history—and English. But that was only after I began to relearn English and remap my understanding of what the language actually was. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, I graduated high school two years early and left for college, where I hoped that I could reinvent myself—or, maybe, let myself be.

Even though I was surrounded by people from all over the world, people still looked at me strangely when I let my accent slip. One night at dinner, someone accused me of being pretentious. Lying on the lawn, someone mocked me for the way I said “Lesbos,” in what felt like a particularly bitter twist. In a poetry workshop, I got flustered during a critique and could barely string a sentence together, attracting sneers from my fellow students. I didn’t sound like the other people from California, the cluster of people from my hometown who all coincidentally ended up at the same tiny liberal arts college on the other side of the country. I didn’t have the slight California drawl, and I learned what was really going to trip me up: idioms.

I told someone to take something with a grain of sugar once, and she corrected me sharply. “Salt? Don’t you mean salt?” “I don’t know,” I said, feeling panicked and helpless. “I guess?”

It didn’t occur to anyone to think that maybe once upon a time I’d been an ELL.

The Internet taught me idioms in the same way that my English nuns probably would have done, thwacking us with rulers.

Idioms seem so casual—just linguistic shortcuts tossed off to convey something with a complicated meaning in just a few words. But they’re anything but casual. They’re not slang terms, like using “arvo” for afternoon in Australia, or even regional variations, like America’s never-ending soda vs. pop debate, or even wordplay that depends on an advanced knowledge of a language’s inner workings. They’re the sneakiest part of language, tripping you up long after you think you’re proficient. My linguist friend told me that even years after people have mastered a language, when they’re fluent by every measure and when they have no trace of an accent and speak just like a native, they still get idioms wrong.

• • •

You learn idioms in childhood, almost unconsciously. They just are, and people shrug helplessly when you ask them to explain. It’s the last straw when someone steals your thunder. You heard it on the grapevine. You might as well go the whole nine yards. A penny for your thoughts? Most idioms don’t even make sense when you stop and think about them, which no one does, and that’s part of why they’re so hard to learn.

Idioms betray me when my almost-nonexistent accent doesn’t. And it was on the Internet that they betrayed me most of all, because on the Internet, a sentence can be ripped apart instantly.

In an essay, I once referred to being “cubbyholed,” my mind stretching back to a phrase along similar lines that I must have heard at some point. I remembered that cubbies were those small boxes we kept our baskets in when I first enrolled in American schools. I knew that cubbies were the tiny slots in elaborate roll-top desks where you put utensils and paper clips. I didn’t want to be boxed in. I didn’t want to be trapped in the same narrow confines that I’d always been trapped in, and thus, I didn’t want to be “cubbyholed” with smelly gym sneakers and ancient textbooks. It made sense to me. It was an essay about identity politics, of course, and people who are troubled by labels don’t want to be “cubbyholed.”

“Don’t you mean ‘pigeonholed?’” The first comment jeered, arguing that the rest of the essay was useless if “the writer can’t even get English right.”

I stared at the screen, puzzled. What did pigeons have to do with anything? I didn’t think I’d meant that, but I had to go look the idiom up, anyway. There are 415,000 Google results for “cubbyholed,” most of which are definitions for “cubby” and the terms surrounding it. There are 538,000 for pigeonholed, most of which involve what I know now is the correct English idiomatic usage.

I don’t know where I got “cubbyholed” from. It’s not an idiom in use in any English dialect—as far as I know—but it’s an example of how the brain pulls from existing knowledge and vague hints to assemble a phrase that seems to make sense. If you haven’t grown up steeped in the idioms of a particular culture, you are more or less doomed to repeatedly mangle them and to be mocked for it.

You say words out of order or misplace words altogether or substitute words because the original idiom doesn’t make sense and you try to follow the logic of a language you missed during your formative years. You remember hearing a phrase somewhere and you try to replicate it. What was it? “Don’t bite off more than you can eat?” “Cut a carpet?” It’s like how some kids grow up to be adults with gaps in their pop-culture history, caused by not having televisions as children, which is another thing of which I’m guilty. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never make up for that lost time.

It didn’t occur to anyone to think that maybe once upon a time I’d been an ELL.

The Internet taught me idioms in the same way that my English nuns probably would have done, stalking slowly up and down the hardwood floors of the school, thwacking us with rulers if our eyes strayed to the appealing peace of the olive groves outside. They believed in a swift and harsh approach to education, throwing us into the water without so much as a warning. The Greek students usually took it stoically, but Anna and I would come home in tears, presenting our woes to our parents. Anna’s mother would bake cookies and, on a good day, take us to the castle, where we could look out and watch the ocean. Anna’s mother taught me that when the ocean was lumpy, a storm was coming.

She taught me that in German, which she used to speak with my father over the fence between our houses, and my father was the one who showed me that there are many versions of the same language, depending on where and how you learned it. The gutter German he’d picked up as a child living in Berlin with his father was nothing like Anna’s mother’s refined German or Anna’s imitation of her mother. I could tell that my father could have spoken like them—but he chose not to, out of an almost cheerful defiance.

The Internet taught me idioms by slapping me and marching me to the head of the class to make me write on the chalkboard, by laughing when I couldn’t solve the problem of an idiom. They became—and still are—like puzzles to me, sentences to be diagrammed in the hopes of demystifying them.

But even as the Internet reduced me to the tears of my childhood, I wanted to tell it the story of my language: what I had gained in translation and what I wouldn’t sacrifice in the world for a perfect knowledge of the slippery ways of English. I wanted to tell them that behind every apparent error lay a story—that the people they mocked for not writing English like they did probably had their own stories, like mine.

Our house on Lesbos had a deep, sunken kitchen, always cool and dark, tucked up against the side of the hill, and it opened out into the backyard, steps dropping away abruptly, a tripping hazard when you needed to go out to the αποχωρητήριο at night. I used to sit at the table watching my father cook fish, trying to execute the delicate and exacting art of frying it precisely on one side without burning it, before flipping it without allowing the fillet to tear apart. When it worked, the fish was warm and flaky, eaten with salt, pepper, and oil.

We would sit out at the rickety utility spool in the backyard that we’d appropriated for use as a table. We’d had to painstakingly roll it up the narrow stone streets and muscle it through the kitchen with help from a team of amused Greeks. My father and I would perch on a rough bench he’d made from salvaged wood, eating our fish from mismatched plates, watching the fireflies when they emerged. When we were done, we’d scour the dishes with sand and rinse them in a bucket, and sometimes my father would pull out his saxophone, improvising jazz out into the night. Sometimes the neighbors would drift over to listen, and sometimes they’d carry instruments of their own; a bizarre mixture of bouzouki and jazz and whatever else happened to spontaneously arise would confuse the birds, who would quickly scatter from the tree branches.

It took me many years to connect the strange, glorious, beautiful music we used to play on languid evenings with my own strange, glorious, beautiful English. I suppose I have the Internet to thank for that, because it was the Internet that made me defiantly defensive about my voice. When people mock me now, I think of my father leaning over the fence, teasing Anna’s mother in his most offensive German, and I smile.

Illustration by Max Fleishman