It’s a common thing for people (and by ‘people’, I mean expat English teachers; many would justifiably disagree with my choice of collective noun, there, I admit) who’ve served a long sentence in the grammar mines of Korea to complain that they feel as if their ability to express themselves in English has drained slowly away. They’re in a bar somewhere and suddenly find themselves totally unable to describe clearly how much they hate whatever bug it was that crawled up their ass that day. And it’s not the booze that’s split mind and mouth, damn it! No, it’s the daily grind of feeling compelled to speak in monosyllables, to shoehorn their thoughts into non-complex sentences. It’s grown into habit. It’s become instinct for them to avoid using the present perfect or the passive, or even, depending on the age and language ability of most of their students, to begin to avoid using auxiliary verbs altogether when speaking to the Koreans with whom they spend so much of their time. It’s begun to feel like communication is more effective for them and everyone else if the difference between “Where you go yesterday?”, “Where you go now?” and “Where you go tomorrow?” gets restricted to that single, terminal time word.


Of course, that’s dumb, but trained language teachers tend to be like honourable politicians amongst the unwashed hordes of the hogwan†istas. Which is to say, pretty damn thin on the ground, and automatically under suspicion merely because of their rarity.
† cut-throat, private language institutes.
Anyway, they get used to that deliberate act of pulling their arms back into the communication train before it enters the tunnel. They start to feel tongue-tied when digging any deeper than the equivalent of ‘See Jin-Ok run! Run Jin-Ok! Run!‘ They shelve their Great Canamerican Novel and start to limit their self-expression to ‘HAHAHHA yuo suck!’ on message boards or ‘HAHAHAA pwned joo newb!’ in Counterstrike or Q4. Or even ‘That’s a transparent strawman argument, and I know that this is an ad hominem attack, but yuo you suck!’ and ‘On preview: HAHAHHAAA 5-dolla newb!’ on Metafilter.
Me, I’ve noticed two things that have emerged from paying attention to what I say and speaking as clearly and correctly as I can, almost all the time.
The first is that my writing is getting, if anything, more parenthetical and rococco. That’s probably not a good thing, but much as I love writers who are spare and sinewy and rippling with Harlequin-romance-cover muscle, wanky pyrotechnics and goofy juxtapositions have always played a too-large role in the stuff I’ve written. It’d take too damn much effort to change that now. You know, unless somebody paid me to do it.
I write the way I talk when I’m drunk, I think, even though I never write while drunk. I admit I am always trying, what with the Strunk & White tattoos I had done in invisible ink on my forehead back in high school, to eliminate unnecessary words. The problem there being that I have so much difficulty deciding which ones are unnecessary (and I’m pretty sure, unlike many of those teachers I mention above, that it’s not the auxiliary verbs) that I just don’t bother editing myself at all.
Also, I’m lazy.
The second thing that’s emerged is that when I speak, naturally and extemporaneously, I never use idiom or slang. I rarely use contractions, and my Canadian accent (I think) has all but disappeared. I am the (literal) model of clear, expressive use of standard English. My students are elated that they understand me easily, and inevitably depressed when they can’t understand a damn thing that American engineer who’s visiting this week is saying. I’ve always spoken quickly, and though I still do, now I merely give you a mild case of windburn rather than lift your scalp right off when I’m excited about something. These are good things, I think.
I’m trying like hell (well, maybe just like heck, to be honest) to find a shiny, happy medium between these two poles. Me talk pretty already, but me hope me write pretty someday, too.


Join the conversation! 12 Comments

  1. oh, come now. you’re drop dead gorgeous.
    i’m getting a tattoo that says “be obscure clearly”. no but really. by which i mean to say: i hear and understand your pain.

  2. In the field of electricity, when, for instance, the poles are brought towards each other, and the voltage with which they are charged overcomes the resistance of the medium which separates them, a discharge is produced which manifests as a spark — lightning is an instance of this phenomenon of the “happy medium between these two poles”.

  3. When I started teaching English at a college in Taiwan, I was appalled that native speakers of English would sidle up to me and ask “Which is right, ‘go over there’ or ‘go over to there’?” (or whatever damn thing that seemed obvious to me). I thought “These people are getting paid to teach English?” Then after a few months of talking with Chinese speakers whose English was at best serviceable I found myself wondering similar things. That’s one reason I got out of the teaching-English-in-Taiwan biz (another being the crashing and burning of my love life, but that’s another kettle of mapo doufu).

  4. >No, it’s the daily grind of feeling compelled to speak in monosyllables, to shoehorn their thoughts into non-complex sentences.
    now you sound like an australian in london.

  5. Eschew obfuscation!
    I was chuffed to come across your site for the first time the other day, just as you’re resurgent, Monsieur Poulet. Mind out for that flu, now, birdie boy.
    I’ve been having a good old time going through your Korea archives. (Yes, I’ve found a hogwan job that leaves a lot of twiddling time). Spot on with this one: and it doesn’t always help to talk with fellow ‘native speakers’, as many seem to arrive talking that way already.

  6. Shutters open, tied to the mast… funny bit of family history (other side, so you probably never got this one in the ear from the aunties or gram) – one of the long lost great-greats, a fisherman, was caught out in a storm and lashed himself to the mast in a ‘captain with the ship’ type maneuver. He was the only man to see the next morning – went insane, mind you, but it hauled him through. Draw what you will from the insane part (it does make the story more relevant). I do like what the chapeau de langues has to say up there. Fewer options sometimes just means we already know what we’re going to order. The menu may or may not exist – but it’s somewhat irrelevant.
    I have a hard time dragging my brain out of the shallow puddles I’m being conditioned to swim in. The only way to get some of that mental exercise is to find the deeper water to swim in — very glad you’re back and I’m already a post behind. emails are on the way. Now put the Tom Robbins in one hand, the Nicholson Baker in the other knock together for belly-fire lighting and write some more for us…

  7. Hey, it would make my day if unecessary words bowed out from the world of literary redundancy, to instead join forces with the BSSWNA (Bored Street Sign Writers of North America).
    Because who wants to just STOP, when they could

  8. Hi, I hope this isn’t too intrusive. I have a good friend from Canada who is currently teaching English in South Korea. As a fellow Canadian, I thought you could recommend Christmas presents for the Canadian in South Korea? Are there any things you particuarly miss from home that could be mailed?

  9. I never write while drunk
    *refrains more*

  10. Well, not Write write. Not even comment at PUI at MeFi, for a long time now.
    And Molly, I dunno what to recommend. I’ve been out of Canada for so long… I’d kill for a case of Kraft Dinner, me! I think slightly unusual-outside-of-Canada, truly Canuck (or even American) food would go over well, and should probably make it through customs…

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