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.