It’s strange seeing how much I have altered my language because of teaching, especially for children. In the States, it seems that half of our language is cultural references, like a nationwide inside joke. Why is English so hard to teach? Because none of us take it seriously. Unless you indulge in the culture, you can’t always know what we’re talking about.
My Taiwanese friends all speak English, in as much that the grammar is correct and they know the basic words, but they are always looking to expand on what they know. I know I can be really easy to understand because I am a teacher and I have adapted to that type of speech. That doesn’t always help when someone is trying to learn the English we speak rather than the English we teach.
I realized this when the council was here and my language reverted to what it used to be, then got worse. The problem with cultural references is that it requires, to an extent, a mirror. The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club. There was a time and an era for that movie, an era of lost souls, before the towers fell and our view of the world changed. Then we had our great wars, and our great recession. The people that saw it, that understood the emotions it carried, understand the reference.
In Mexico, I understood the references to some extent because I am from San Diego. I am an American, pero, yo soy un poco Mexicano, tambien. Our nations are too mixed to be separated, and we are family. Out here, the references don’t exist, especially when teaching children. They tend to have the same faults in their speech patterns, not just because of their language at home, but because most of the people around them do not speak English like a native.
Culture, as a joke, as a connection, or as something more, is what gives a language it’s flavor. It’s not right or wrong, it’s a matter of style. It’s amusing to hear the different styles of English, the accents and the modifiers, but to really believe that one is better than another is arrogance. The speed of NYC, the slow Texas drawl, the patterns of San Diego, and the old aristocratic roots of the South all have their style, their connection, and their roots.
When people don’t get the joke, the connection is missed, and it is felt. There is no faster way to identify as someone who is not part of the group than to miss the cues for laughter. I have found those cues in every place I’ve lived, easily found beyond the words spoken. Sometimes we just laugh because everyone is laughing, and that makes us part of the group.
There is always a bit of Spanish in what I teach my students, not because I want to practice but because that is the culture I come from. We know how to pronounce the Mexican words stolen and added to our language. Not Spanish, but true Mexican. It is the culture, the food, and the style that we took. America is a melting pot, not of people, but of cultures. You can come in and refuse to assimilate, we’ll still take your food and start wearing anything that we think looks good. When you come here, it’s a hot pot, and we will put anything in it, whether you like it or not.
Culture isn’t something that is concrete, or is a line between us. It’s a way to connect, a shared experience, and not something that can be kept in a safe. People copy and steal with respect, and without, out of love, or mockery. We do it because we fear, and because we hate. We do it to imitate our heroes and to try and connect to people we will never know.
Teaching American English out here is strange, simply because it is shouting into the void. There are few people to connect to, and there is little to reflect our culture. Even if we are from the same country, it can be opposite ends, but it is more often that they are Brits, Canadians, South Africans, or Australians. The humor doesn’t connect the same, and the lack of reflection leaves me feeling empty.
A lot of times I connect better with the Taiwanese simply because I am not trying to find that common ground. There may be fragments, but the goal is to share something neither of us has really experienced before. When a language is native, it is easy to take for granted, like that surprise step off the curb that makes your heart skip a beat.
There is no us and them, there is only connection and separation. Everything else is so fluid that there are no real lines between them, but we often find what we look for even if it’s not there. It doesn’t take much to understand most people you will ever meet in life, you just have to really listen rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.