eptember whizzed by me like a comet. Yesterday, it seems, was mid-August, with sun was so hot you couldn’t go outside between noon and 4 p.m. Now, fall is knocking the leaves off the trees and eliminating the final, pesky traces of mosquito life.
I spent September doing an intensive CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) course in Rome. It took up every minute of my time, from the early morning cock-a-doodle-doo of my smart-phone to late night lesson planning on my aunt’s dresser. On the weekends I’d take the train up to Umbria and spend my “free” time penning grammar analyses for the upcoming week. My wife and I barely saw each other except with puffy eyes.
Before leaving Rome I stopped at the Anglo American Book Shop near Piazza di Spagna, where I worked for six years. After such an immersion in the ways and wonders of my native tongue, I naturally gravitated to the linguistics section. I picked out a few promising titles, one of which was intriguingly called “Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language.” I paid and went on my way, eager to finally read something just for fun. When I got home my wife was curious to see what I’d bought.
“You’re finally over your obsession with science and atheism,” she said, relieved.
“What do you mean, ‘obsession’?” I asked.
“You get obsessed with things. When you get into something you buy books about it, you read them day and night, you discuss them at breakfast, you go on about them at dinner. You virtually become them. I’m glad to see you’ve moved on to something more interesting.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, even maternal.
Denying it would have been foolhardy. I conceded she was right. I’m obsessive. I’ve taken Ezra Pound’s words to heart ever since I first read them: “What thou lovest well remains, / the rest is dross / What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee / What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.” (I quarrel with Pound on almost every conceivable point, but I can’t take issue with those words.)
What I love well is the English language. The rest is not dross and I love many things, but at the end of the day the thoughts that flit through my brain as I lie in bed are in English. It’s the mame-loshen of my synapses (it’s the Yiddish term for “mother tongue.”).
I’m rediscovering the language I’ve taken for granted all my life. Language, in the words of linguist Guy Deutscher, is “mankind’s greatest invention.” As the first words drop from our daughter’s lips (“bye-bye” and “ciao” are making their tandem debut), there’s perhaps no better time for a love affair with my own mother tongue.
Besides, if I’m going to teach English I might as well know as much as possible about it. And that includes not only the snarly grammar points that give newly-minted teachers like me the hives, but also the evolution of the language itself, it’s history and transformation into a global lingua franca.
For example, just yesterday I was finishing up a translation for some luxury retreat in the Tuscan countryside when I realized my spell check was in Italian. That’s no help when you’re writing in English. When I went to adjust the language of my document, however, I was greeted not by the standard binary choice of UK-U.S. English, but rather a plethora of Englishes: Trinidadian, Zimbabwean, New Zealand, Jamaican, Namibian, Filipino. It turns out that trading in tongues is a tricky business these days.
I’m learning that it’s possible, and perhaps inevitable, to approach English as a stranger. One of the first things we did in CELTA was to take a one-hour lesson in a foreign language: Chinese. By the end of the session we were asking each other “Would you like some coffee or tea?” in butchered Mandarin. Another lesson was dedicated to reading a newspaper article in Esperanto. It wasn’t as difficult as it sounds.
At one point I embarrassed myself in front of my colleagues, all of them women and most from the UK. I used the term “wet willy” in the American sense, a prank where “the perpetrator wets his or her index finger with saliva and inserts it into the ear of the victim,” or so says Wikipedia. In the UK it means “penis.” Imagine the peals of laughter as I naïvely tried explaining my way out of that one.
My wife was wrong in thinking that one interest gets sidelined to make room for another. I’m not over my previous obsessions by a long shot. I’m still as unconvinced as ever by arguments for God and religion. I’m still as wide-eyed as a child when attempting to understand what science tells us about the cosmos and ourselves. And now I’ve fallen in love with something so ingrained in my consciousness I never really noticed it was there: the language I grew up in.