Tag Archives: polyglot

Book Review: John McWhorter’s “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”

John McWhorter, author of “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” and linguistics professor at Columbia University. One of his research interests is how socio-historical phenomena affect languages. It is that interest, it would seem, that is further investigated throughout the current book. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is essentially a history of the English language that seeks to explain the mysterious grammatical complexities of our native tongue. Where many people might argue that some grammatical phenomena are the result of mere chance, McWhorter details a journey through history, a story of people mixing, interacting, and infecting one another’s speech. In this way, the author lends evidence to the English narrative that serves to explain why English is the way it is and why it isn’t something else.

The author’s perspective is that there is too much emphasis on the fancy foreign vocabulary that has been borrowed into English and not enough focus on the grammatical changes. He points out that plenty of people from different cultures who interact end up sharing and blending language and that English is not any more special than any of the other cases. He seeks to dispel the age old story of English; that it came from Old English to Modern English primarily by Germanic tribes invading Britain and then getting three loads of words dumped on them first by the Danish and Norwegian vikings, then the french, and finally by the latin found in works by classical authors. McWhorter writes, “English is more peculiar among its relatives, and even the world’s languages as a whole, in what has happened to its grammar than in what has happened to its vocabulary” (McWhorter). He thinks that English grammar is complex due to the nature of the language’s travels.

While McWhorter does not address any cultural, racial, linguistic, or gender issues in a negatively critical manner, he does make some mention of the nature of things insofar as they pertain to the development of the present state of English. He merely notes that part there was a blending of people, culture, and language between the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in Britain with the Celts. People blending aside, McWhorter does not make many conclusions pertaining to gender (as both genders use language similarly). He explains the linguistic issues of English as a result of many people coexisting, commingling, and cohabitating.

Some of the practical or concrete implications of the topics in this book is that it offers insight into why English might be so difficult for others to learn. This knowledge may help teachers to have patience with students as they are attempting to acquire the language. Outside of that, this book serves as more of a friendly and approachable non-linguist-layperson guide into some of the peculiarities of English grammar with a little history behind said peculiarities presented in an entertaining format.

As an ESL teacher, this book has better prepared me with the knowledge I need to better advocate for my students to people who are curious about, ignorant of, or hostile to English learners. I have gained a better understanding into why English is as difficult as it is and better relate that difficulty to those who may not believe it so. With this knowledge, I am equipped to advocate for my students by making clear the nature of the strain and laboriousness that English learners undertake when attempting to learn the language.

As an ESL teacher, some people may ask me questions about the English language. It is to my great appreciation, then, that this book as given me some potential answers to the most inquisitive of the populace.

For instance:

Question 1: “Why does English have a meaningless ‘do’ in polar questions such as: ‘do you like rice?’ and in negative statements such as: ‘I do not love the bears.’ The ‘do’ in each phrase does not exactly mean anything”.

Answer: The meaningless ‘do’ is a legitimate feature in the Celtic language (and Cornish and Welsh) and, after years of interaction between those languages and English in blended families and mixed friends, the ‘do’ jumped into the English grammar. Initially, it was more prominent than it is nowadays, but change is the nature of language and eventually some uses of ‘do’ in English fell away. One such example of a ‘do’ once had but now forgotten was the ‘do’ in a construction such as “I do eat” where today we simply say “I eat”.

Question 2: “Why does English use a verb-noun progressive construction to denote present tense such as I am running?” No other Germanic language uses a construction like this to do that.

Answer: In fact,  other languages that do this are Welsh and Cornish. A product from the influence that blending cultures has on a language (in this case English).

Question 3/4: “Why were there some rules in English I learned about such as: don’t end sentences with prepositions or don’t’ split infinitives, yet people do those exact things in writing and in speech?”

Answer: The answer is in our history, in dealing with prepositions, people wanted to emulate Latin, which does not end sentences with prepositions, but English is its own beast and so naturally goes its own way with where prepositions land. Regarding the rule against splitting infinitives, it also stems from Latin. However, the difference is that in Latin, infinitives are just one word such that ‘to run’ may be realized as the made up Latin version of ‘torun’. Whereas in English, infinitives take the form of two words ‘to’ and some verb such as ‘run’. It is easy to split infinitives with other words when they are already split apart.

This book is most certainly intended for popular consumption and as such, it is certainly not a text book or research report. The information is presented in a manner that makes the book a ‘page-turner’ and keeps the interest of the reader.  This style of writing, for this sort of information, is the spice or seasoning needed to make this area of linguistics more than bland meat. It is the unfortunate truth that much of the linguistic literature can be bland and any author who writes with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt is a blessing.

In conclusion, this book is an excellent read. It succeeds in setting the record straight insofar as how English came to be. It successfully dispels any illusions as to how English has changed over the years. The book is written in such a style that makes it more like reading a story or account of the people who molded English over the years and that makes it a pleasurable read. I would certainly recommend this book to any person (outside of ESL/Linguistics) as well as any person within the ESL or Linguistics community.

Myth – There’s simply too much to learn.

I’ll Never Know Everything!

Okay… this one might be true. You might never know every single word that exists in your target language, but cut yourself some slack, do you know every single word in the English language?

I know a lot of English and consider myself fluent but there is no way I’d be able to hang with nuclear scientists and understand every bit of jargon they use.

Or consider some non scientific slang you might hear… like bubbler!

“Op’ (common involuntary midwestern noise) scuse’ me, just need the bubbler (drinking/water fountain) there…”

I learn new words in my native tongue every week!

Fluency is a difficult word to define and everybody seems to have their own definitions of what “fluent” is and looks like. I personally believe that “fluency” means I can survive in a country where that language is spoken. As such, I would consider myself fluent in a language if I had the ability and confidence to go out, find some sort of housing, shop for food, make friends and plans, and be able to take part in community events while speaking with people and understanding them!

If I can work a job in the target language, then that’s mega-fluent in my book! Your grammar might not be 100% perfect, your pronunciation may not be 100% correct, and you probably won’t know every single word that you hear but that’s okay! I’ve never had an instance where a speaker of another language got mad at me for trying to speak in their native tongue and making mistakes. People are flattered and generally impressed that you are making the effort to communicate with them in their language!

Myth – I can never practice with real people.

Nobody Speaks “X” Language Around Me.

Good news: Technology today has eliminated this problem!

There are a number of websites and apps you can utilize in order to find speakers of the language you are learning to practice with. Some of my favorite websites and apps to use for finding language exchange partners are:

  1. italki
  2. whatsapp
  3. facebook
  4. skype
  5. interpals
  6. and more…

It’s important and wise to be careful about using the internet since you don’t actually know who you may be talking to. When I am looking for a new language partner I like to make sure they have a well made and complete profile that I can check out and determine if they are somebody legitimate and would make a good language exchange partner for me! Even when people send me requests I check them out before responding right away. It’s just something that makes me feel more safe and comfortable when striking up conversation! It usually turns out well, sometimes you will find people that don’t want to practice as much as you’d like to but the great thing is that you can have as many language partners as you’d like!

Some of my language exchange partners have even turned into good friends!

I had an English-Spanish language exchange with a girl about my age who lives in Peru while I was in college. From there we skyped for anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours once or twice a week before I had to go to Spanish class! We still keep in touch but due to busy schedules it’s not quite as much, however, we still get along great.

Myths – I’m too busy

I Don’t Have the Time to Learn a Foreign Language

We lead incredibly busy lives. However, there are 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in one week! Let’s look at where some potential time might be gained.

  1. Drive times: pop in a podcast or listen to music in your target language
  2. Shower time: podcasts and music!
  3. Breakfast time: enjoy a level appropriate book (or maybe a podcast or some music)
  4. Lunch break: great for a 5-10 minute Duolingo lesson
  5. Family dinner: find a pleasant music soundtrack to play quietly in the background
  6. T.V. / Netflix: Try watching in your target language or check out the subtitle feature
  7. Cooking time: try foreign recipies written in the original language… or it’s a podcast/music opportunity
  8. Make time: wake up 15 minutes early so you can read a book, do a lesson, listen to some jamz, etc.

Think about the time you spend on activities like these. They may last only 10 minutes to an hour but if you incorporate your new language into those activities the time will add up fast!

You don’t need a 3 hour study session, you need consistency.


Myth – I don’t have an aptitude!

I’ve Never had a Mind for Foreign Languages

Stop. Right. There. You most certainly do have a mind for foreign languages! When you were born every language was a foreign language. Babies come into the world as universal language learners.

They (you) are primed for learning any given language whether that be Mandarin, Russian, Afrikaans, or Korean!

Kids become specialized language learners as they are exposed to their mother tongue. While you may not be a baby anymore, you still have the mental capacity to learn a language. Some people even argue that adults are better language learners than children because you know what works best for you! You know how you learn best and you can manage your own time! At the end of the day, you most definitely have a mind for language.

Stay tuned for ideas, tools, and tricks to enhance your learning!

Myth – it’s too hard!

Learning a Language is too Hard!

This couldn’t be farther from the truth and especially when you break the language down into small manageable milestones to build up early successes and confidence. When you see how well you are doing and quickly you are coming along you will know that learning a language can be made easy! Keep the right mindset and keep moving forward.

It’s OKAY to make mistakes!

Think of how a child learns their first language, how many times does that child make a mistake? A lot. It’s a learning process and you learn from your mistakes, so don’t sweat it! Making mistakes is one of the beautiful parts of learning a language. While teaching English in Mexico to kids one student, while learning names of common animals, very boldly and excitedly exclaimed that the word for “abeja” (bee) in English was “sheep!” The class got a good laugh out of it and I corrected him. That memory stuck with him and he will forever know that “abeja” means “bee” and that “sheep” is “oveja.”

Its moments like these that remind me of my own mistakes I’ve made while learning a foreign language.

In my second year in high school Spanish, my teacher gave the class the speaking assignment to stand up in front and talk about an activity they liked doing. When it was my turn I stood up and tried to say, “I like mountain climbing without ropes!” so I said, “Me gusta escalar montañas sin ropa!” I felt proud that I nailed this line until I saw the look of confusion on my teacher’s (and classmates’) faces. I had actually declared, “I like mountain climbing naked!” So… needless to say I learned from that mistake and have never forgotten that “ropa” means “clothes” and not “rope” … false cognates will get you!