Monday, August 10, 2009

Variations on a Theme of English : English as a Foreign Language

The Internet has facilitated the growth of global communities with people all over the world coming together to interact over specific interests - from role playing games and programming to cooking and parenting - as well as a general need to connect. Perhaps the biggest divider of community is language. If you can read and communicate in a certain language you can join that community; if you can’t you are naturally excluded or you have to build your own community.

For those of us who speak English, coming across spelling and grammar idiosyncrasies can often bring back the awareness that we are communicating with others from a totally different culture half-way around the world. It can be tricky for editors to decide whether a “foreign” voice needs to be changed to conform, or retained for its fresh appeal. It’s a fine line that depends on many variables including an "irritation" factor.

In fiction writing, dialogue is often spelt with artistic licence (i.e., incorrectly) in order to portray the English being spoken by a character with an accent or different dialect. But grammatical and syntactical quirks can also be used with great effect and can give the reader a break from difficult-to-read contractions and misspellings.

Do you write in a language other than your “mother tongue”? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

Here are some foreign foibles I’ve come across recently:

Too much of money.

Borrow me your car.

Can I lend your car?

Learn me to speak English.

I can learn with help of you.

I want to be best in company.

Can you help me for that?

Please, suggest me books I be reading.

I saw you from the party.

This project is going to take sometime.

Find information in Internet.
And some commonly confused words that even native English speakers get mixed up:

Cite, site, and sight
Cite a reference book; a construction site; eye sight

Incite and insight
Incite violence; to have insight into, or awareness of, a situation

Lay and lie
You lay an object down; you lie down

-- More Variations on a Theme of English:
US and UK English
More US and UK-isms

Elsa Neal Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Visit her website to download her free mini report on the Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them. Stay and browse through her resources for writers or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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  1. This is an interesting topic for me. I've been reading mysteries from crime writers in other countries (e.g. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), which have probably been edited to death by their publishers. English is SUCH a hard language and has so many irregularities.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. English is very difficult you're right Elizabeth. Some of these I think are actually grammatically incorrect everywhere though.

  3. Some fun examples there. My favorite was in an email where a colleague said he was "very exciting" about some work we were doing.

  4. shockingly most of those are things that I have come across from people born and raised in the UK. Apparently english is not the first language even for many english. ;)

  5. I don't try to write with foreign terms or usages. I, undoubtedly, would mess them up. But if I wanted to, I could probably get help from fellow writers in that country. Gotta love the Internet!

    Straight From Hel

  6. "grammatical and syntactical quirks can also be used with great effect and can give the reader a break from difficult-to-read contractions and misspellings."
    Interesting post Elsa. As an Aussie who works in retail in a multicultural suburb I'm kicking myself I haven't taken more notice of this in the past. It's always been something I've noticed for its curiosity value. Now that I'm a wannabe writer whose WIP contains a UN array of people speaking English, I would LOVE to have more examples of this on a nationality basis.
    A couple of things I have noticed. I have a Serbian customer who often misses the plural form of words.
    People from other countries with different sentence construction sometimes translate that across to English, eg verbs in funny places.
    I should keep a notebook with me at work and note them down.
    It's usually not a personal thing but a characteristic of a lot of people who speak the same language. More examples of specific language quirks would be great.

  7. I always have trouble with lay and lie.

    There are constantly new words and phrases made up by people, some part of and some that never will be part of the English language.

    Morgan Mandel

  8. Oh, do I have a lot to say on this topic!

    Being Norwegian, and spending a considerable amount of time on international online forums, I run across language issues a lot. At the moment I even live in the US, so now I have language issues also offline.

    When I first started frequenting these online forums, my English was very much at a “high school level” – I could write and speak it reasonably well (actually, quite well, as I’ve always read a lot in English, and I do watch a lot of American or British TV and movies), but I would constantly see words or phrases in these forums I didn’t know. Also, looking back, I know my grammar was occasionally far off… (It still is, but I’ve learned how to hide it…)

    After a while, though, especially when I started writing more continuous texts as opposed to just “chatting”, I got more comfortable using English. At the moment I’m writing my thesis in English, I’m speaking it on a daily basis and I’ve recently started dreaming in English. What worries me now, though, is what will happen with my native language? It’s not like I’ll forget how to speak Norwegian, but there is the danger of English grammar or an English way of putting things sneaking into my previously unspoiled bokmål. *sigh* You can’t have it both, can you?

    Also – though this technically is off-topic as it’s not about writing – I’ve been told that my accent is close enough to the “real deal” that I could pass off as being American. All the more reason to look funny at me when I suddenly use completely wrong words, like “borrow me your car”…

    Finally, (I know, what a terribly long comment,) there is one advantage of writing in a foreign language. Being unfamiliar with certain terms or phrases really forces you to carefully consider what you put down on paper. Each word I use is a potential trap, each time I post something there is the possibility that someone out there is secretly snickering because what I’ve written has a completely different meaning than what I intended. Therefore I revise what I write, I try to find the errors before they occur, and as a result – I not only write better English; I write better. (My real secret is to invent new words – it worked for Shakespeare, and I try to learn from the best…)

  9. Thanks for your comments everyone.
    I think most of the difficulties with English creep in because it has evolved and changed so much and incorporated/borrowed so much from other languages.

    Cruella Collett:
    My mother-in-law is Dutch and can no longer just slip back into speaking Hollands. She actively has to prepare her thoughts before a phone call or writing a letter.

  10. I am English and write in UK English. I live in Cyprus and would love to write a book in Greek, but I think a short story, written over a ten year period would be more realistic!

  11. I've written about different regions in the US, and I use cadence and rhythm to capture the appropriate area rather than contractions.

  12. It is quite interesting. Nowadays,in countries where English is used as an important language, nobody cares much about its syntax. It is mainly considered as an important means of communication and hence holds a view that it must be mutually intelligible to those who communicate. That's all.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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