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Please Listen for the Message Over Mistakes in Syntax

Let us have more empathy when we hear each other out. Let us remember the human being from whom the words are being said before we think of that person’s grammatical mistakes.

I wish that everyone in the world would listen to someone speak for the message they want to convey instead of listening for grammatical and pronunciation accuracy.

I find that English speakers expect everyone to speak and write their language well while no one else does to the same extent (however, I remember a lot of French people in Paris who refused to speak to me in French since I didn’t speak French fluently and would only answer me in English; this situation is a little different, though, because the French easily noticed my bad accent and made no big deal out of switching to English. Many English speakers, on the other hand, are monolingual and, so, have no other language to switch to when encountering a non-native English speaker). Perhaps this general attitude comes from the dominance of the English language in the world. Perhaps there’s a feeling that many English speakers share that the English language is superior to other languages.

Many English speakers, from my personal experience, fail to take notice of what someone is trying to say; they don’t respond to what they are being told but speak of grammatical errors that someone expresses. This is strange because a lot of native English speakers use the wrong past participle when they use the present perfect tense sometimes (I clearly hear mistakes from when people recount what happened in crimes or other stories in interviews) or they may use the wrong form of the verb ‘to be’ in the present and past simple tenses. Many native English speakers are helpless when it comes to spelling. A lot of writing I have seen from native speakers has been atrocious. There are surely many more examples that will not be discussed here.

What I want to get at is people need to understand what others say without paying attention to sentence structure so much; at least, receive the message as a priority over how someone may express their message. This shows caring. Pointing out mistakes in syntax first thing, and especially not even replying to what point the speaker is trying to come across shows emotional distance; it shows being cold. It shows not taking whatever the speaker says seriously. It’s unkind.

Okay, I can be fair: it’s nice to get feedback on how to say something in a more effective, clearer way but not getting more than this is not nice at all particularly when the speaker has said something heartfelt.

I’ve always understood non-native English speakers especially due to my background coming from a family mostly consisting of immigrants and coming from Boston, a city where translators of languages ranging from Amharic and Haitian Creole to Portuguese and Swahili were prevalent. I’ve grown up not having a high standard for the way non-native speakers spoke because I have been exposed to other languages growing up and have found at an early age that it’s extremely hard to learn a language at near-native fluency. With this experience, despite being an English as a Foreign Language teacher, I’ve never been pushy about speaking English perfectly. Now, with so many English speakers, it’s highly probable and fair to say that no one really knows perfect English as English speakers of diverse backgrounds have influenced each other and non-natives who are learning English with their differing cultures and accents and vocabulary. I do agree that it’s important to know the fundamentals of English grammar but, as English speakers around the world have created their own versions of English, I think that there’s room to loosen up on strictly correcting someone’s syntax instead to listen first to what they want to say.

Let’s not separate those who are good in English from those who are not as good in English by fussing over mistakes in grammar or use of expressions. Millions of people in the world are learning English right now in order not to stay separated from those who are natives of the English language at a much higher proportion than English speakers who are learning a second language, much less a third one.

I would like to end with a scene in my university dining hall:

There was a blonde, blue-eyed girl and a South Korean girl sitting together having their dinner.

The South Korean girl immigrated to Baltimore, Maryland at age 14 and didn’t speak English well at the time. It was about seven years later, in the girls’ third year (they were in the same year I was in [we went to a small, private women’s university with only less than a thousand undergraduate students]), when the South Korean girl asked, “Could you pass a salt?”

The blonde girl asked the South Korean girl to repeat.

“Could you pass a salt?”

And the blonde girl laughed and wondered why the South Korean girl asked to ‘pass a salt’ when she was supposed to say, “Pass the salt.”

The blonde girl thought it was a huge deal that the South Korean girl made a mistake with her articles and made it out to be the silliest thing but the blonde girl didn’t know other languages.

She had no idea that Korean was an agglutinative language, which means that there are tons of suffixes that attach to existing words in order to create brand new words or, quite commonly, the suffixes are attached to words to create sentences, just like in Turkish and Central Asian languages like Uzbek, Uygur, Tajik, etc. and which makes Korean drastically different from English grammatically. Based on grammar, it’s much harder for a Korean to learn English than it is for an Arab or someone who speaks a Romance language.

Considering how the South Korean girl began to really know English more proficiently when she immigrated to the US and that it was only seven years after the fact, the South Korean girl actually had a high level of English. She spoke without much of a Korean accent at all; her sentences flowed readily and her vocabulary was plentiful. Apart from misusing articles, I could say that she was at near-native fluency (by the way, there are tons of languages such as Korean, Turkish, Russian, Georgian, Vietnamese, etc., where articles don’t exist. I have been in Istanbul for more than three years and I’ve met advanced level students of English who still leave out articles when they need them, or misuse articles).

I would have told the South Korean girl gently that she meant if someone could pass the salt and give her the salt shaker and not get a big laugh out of it. I would just act casual. I only know a few Korean words so who would I be to call her out on incorrectly using English articles?

I care about people more than their ability to speak English as anyone can agree that people are much more than the languages that they know. It’s enough to know that there are a lot of people studying English now in order to communicate and I think that English speakers ought to be more grateful and empathetic to those who take their precious time to learn English particularly to those who speak English nearly as well as their native languages. It’s a hard achievement.

For those who are not so good in English, I repeat, English speakers should care more about what the speaker is communicating more than care about how simple of complex the speaker’s sentence is. Listening for the sake of just picking out someone’s mistakes is like ridiculing the English learner and not showing the English learner compassion.

It’s about time that more English speakers were kinder to non-native English speakers. It’s okay to correct someone’s grammatical errors but sensitively and always keeping in mind first to listen to care about what the speaker wants to say and then politely mention the grammatical mistakes that were made.

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