“I know English,” he tells me. “I was born here in America.”
“Then why don’t you use it correctly?” I want to ask, but I don’t. I don’t because I’m a teacher, and I’m worried that he won’t be receptive to the learning that’s about to take place.
“A lot of people who were born elsewhere can use English better than you can,” I want to say, but I stop myself. It’s not about others. It’s about him, and why he’s so resistant to getting better at the language others will judge him for in the future.
“There’s a difference between knowing English and being able to utilize it correctly in your writing, and we all have work to do that way,” I say instead. I can tell he’s trying to process that. Then he nods, and I know there’s still a chance for this kid.
He is a college freshman. Most of the kids I teach are. I am a writer, but teaching writing is a completely different animal. It takes a patience, a perseverance, an understanding, and a diligence that I’m not sure a lot of other professions have, because semester after semester there are always a few who feel they have nothing left to learn about the language we all love. They are wrong. The key is figuring out how to show them that without wounding their fragile egos.
If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it.
The kids I teach today learned how to write using text messages and emojis. It has been an integral part of their world since day one, and auto-correct is their king. If auto-correct changes something they go with it, regardless of how ridiculous it sounds. If spell check says the word is “its” they’re going to rock with “its” until the day they die, no matter the circumstance.
“If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it,” she tells me, turning her phone to show me that urbandictionary.com backs her up. I’m afraid to tell her that urbandictionary is not a real dictionary, that its words are largely made up and its definitions are wholly untenable.
“The dictionary has certain colloquialisms in it that, while they’re used in informal speech, have no place in formal writing,” I say, instead of telling her that she’s bowing down to a false idol.
I’ve learned a fascinating truth over the course of teaching for 10 years: It’s very difficult to teach people something they already feel they know. Learned habits and grammatical mistakes are compounded because they don’t listen when something is explained the correct way. They believe that having English as a first language makes them experts when it doesn’t. It hinders a lot more than it helps, especially in the classroom when I’m trying to remind them how to construct complete sentences.
I fell in love with English because of its complexity. I knew from an early age that the language identified as national by our country was a complete behemoth, that in order to tame it I would have to focus and understand just as much about the pitfalls as I did about the correct usage. I was enchanted by its idiosyncrasies and thought that to be its master would take a lifetime. It does.That’s because English is constantly changing, even from the time these college students were children to now.
“You know what I meant,” he says when he once again fails to capitalize the word “I.” And he’s right. I definitely knew what he meant, but that won’t help him when he does it on a cover letter for his dream job and that letter gets quickly recycled.
It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly.
Because the beast that is English grammar cares not two whits about intention. It only cares about what resides on the page, what was actually written down. It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly. And it matters. When there are 300 people applying for 10 jobs, and so many of them are comparable in terms of skills and experience, many resumes and cover letters are weeded out based on errors.
It’s called taking care of and cultivating this glorious language we’ve been entrusted with, not making excuses for why we haven’t done so. That’s why I spend so much time and effort working hard to make sure my students understand how massively important it is to master English, regardless of where you were born.