September 2017

Tidbits on the English Language - No. 6: English's Strengths and Weaknesses

You have probably heard mention of pidgin at one time or another, but do you know what it actually is?
Pidgin is a simplified means of communication that develops when two or more groups with no common language attempt to communicate with each other. It is usually a mixture of simplified versions of their respective languages, or a simplified primary language that incorporates parts of the vocabulary and grammar of one or more of the other languages involved.

Pidgins are said to have developed under a variety of circumstances. For example, when merchants engaged in foreign trade and there was a language barrier present. When displaced ethnic groups, which had fled a war, tried to communicate with each other. Or, when people of colonialized countries had to communicate with people of colonial powers. Because those using pidgin to communicate with each other have different first languages, pidgin pronunciation is heavily influenced by the speaker's mother tongue.

Pidgins are simplified languages that arose spontaneously and developed through the pressing needs of those with no shared language to devise makeshift ways to communicate with each other. That is the reason why no one uses pidgin as a first language. And, because they are "broken" in form as compared to natural languages, pidgins tend to be perceived disparagingly. Yet, there is a need to learn the vocabulary and grammatical rules of a pidgin language if one wants to communicate without raising any misunderstandings.

The children of parents who speak pidgin acquire it from their parents and become native speakers of the "language". Once it becomes a first language in this way, its grammar, vocabulary and expressiveness undergo significant development, and it evolves as a natural language. No longer a simplified language, it is differentiated from pidgin and is referred to as "creole." There are some countries and regions where creole has been adopted as the official language or lingua franca.

While there are many English-based pidgins, there are also other varieties in the world, including those based on French, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese.

There are many areas in Africa and Asia where the English spoken is neither of the two major types of English-British or American. Rather, they use an English that originated from pidgin English. The spoken English used in Uganda, Cameroon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh and Pakistan are some such examples. Even if a former British colony, not all were like India or the Philippines (a former U.S. territory) where relatively standard English took root. It is said that in areas where pidgin-derived English is spoken, more and more people think that learning how to speak "correct" (i.e. non-pidgin-derived) English promises jobs and a stable income. That it is the shortcut to a good life.

English has become the world's first global language. But this was not because it is a simple language to learn, let alone better than other languages or possessing greater expressiveness. English is neutral as a language, just like any of the world's other languages. Its position was boosted to where it is today only because of the power and intentions of the people who use English. The reasons are all non-linguistic and are related to people's cultural, social, financial and political needs.

To see how it is not at all a simple language, let's look at elements that people who learn English as a foreign language may find difficult.

There are many idiomatic expressions
- put up with
- get on with
- run into
- run out of
- right away
- so on and so forth

There are things that are often not found in other languages
- The "th" sound
(Can you say expressions like "What's this?" or "The theater is on the fourth street," out loud while pronouncing the words like a native English speaker?)
- The "r" sound
(Can you pronounce the vowel in "bird," "early," or "nurse" like a native speaker?)
- The different spellings for the "sh" sound
(shoe, sugar, issue, mansion, mission, nation, suspicion, ocean, conscious, chaperon, schist, fuchsia, pshaw...)