As the grandchild of immigrants, I grew up being reminded – constantly – of how much better I had it than kids in the old country. But of all the privileges in my comparably cushy life, the one I’m most grateful for is the privilege of NOT having to experience the ugliest and most intractable of immigrant challenges: mastering English as a second language.
While English is no more or less complex than any other language, its irregular spelling and word-formation rules make it a tough language to master – for learners without a background in historical linguistics, for instance, it’s not at all clear why the past form of run is ran and not runned, what the “k” is doing in knit and know, and how it is possible that is, are, was, and be could possibly be forms of the same verb.
Because America is a land of immigrants, most people, thankfully, are tolerant of foreign accents and minor errors in spoken language. In written English, however, the bar is set much higher, especially for those in business and academia. Besides the obvious pitfalls – spelling and vocabulary choices – there are three major pitfalls non-native English speakers need to keep in mind when writing in English:
1. Article use: Forget big words such as “antidisestablishmentarianism.” It’s little words such as a and the that can pose the biggest challenges for non-native English speakers. This is because many of the world’s languages (Chinese and Japanese, for instance) do not have equivalents for these words, and the exact contexts for their use are not easily defined – even trained linguistic theorists debate exactly what they are.
2. Preposition use: Locational terms such as in and on can cause big headaches for second-language learners and writers. These little words can be treacherous because their usages vary greatly from language to language – French and English equivalents of on, for example, are not completely interchangeable. For this reason, English speakers are also guilty of mangling prepositional phrases when trying to speak or write in French. During my junior year abroad in France, my French instructor repeatedly warned my classmates and me that passengers there ride IN trains and not ON trains – to French ears, the latter brings to mind Jesse James crawling around on top of a train car in an old cowboy movie!
3. Rhetorical style: Even a mechanically perfect translation of a passage into English may still sound unnatural to English-speaking ears. This is because differing cultural and aesthetic standards result in written languages each having a distinct rhetorical flavor, and the rhetorical features of some languages don’t come off well in English. For instance, I edit a lot of scientific papers for native speakers of Japanese. Many of these are rigorously researched with carefully documented findings – but almost all skirt around their findings with expressions such as “These results appear to suggest that our hypothesis is correct.” While motivated by a commendable Japanese cultural imperative for modesty and politeness, these expressions have the unfortunate effect of making their authors sound weak and noncommittal to Anglophone ears – not the effect they want when trying to get published in a refereed American journal!
Because my job involves bridging the linguistic and cultural gap between non-native English speakers and the intended readers of their work, I’ve grown not only more aware of their errors, but their pluck and persistence in mastering as much English as they have. While I have a functional reading and speaking knowledge of two other languages besides English (which is two more languages than the average American knows), I know I’d have a tough time writing an academic research paper in French or Spanish without a dictionary at my side and lots of help.
In short, there’s no shame in not having perfect mastery of English – and no shame in asking a friendly native for help in getting your word across.