Subjunctive and me

Just like many academics for whom English is not their first language, I used to apologise for my English. You hear such apologies both in public and semi-pubic professional settings. This post is, again, about my experience of being a foreigner. If the post is disjointed, it’s because it’s important. Well, at least to me.

I’m sure most of us saw a conference presenter who started with an apology for their English. But the pained expression and embarrassment are greeted with shouts of encouragement and support, as the poor presenter stands waiting to continue. In my experience, there are two responses to such apologies.

The first response is to tell the presenter that their English is very good, in fact, almost perfect, sometimes in blatant contrast with reality, as the speaker struggles with putting their sentences together.

When I started having the opportunity to apologise for my English, it was already fluent enough, though with a heavy Eastern European accent. It was very far from perfect. And so, when I heard the reassuring compliments about its state, I kept thinking: Are you really saying that I’m stupid enough not to recognise that I still have a way to go? Depending on the state of the apologiser’s communicative skills, the compliments range from insincere to insulting and I wish I had never been subjected to them. So, I was standing trying to smile, hoping that the late complimenter who still absolutely had to tell me that I was the masterful master of the English language, just went to hell.

The second response is something like: Oh, but my Polish is not as good as your English. In other words, I mastered English, while Polish for you hasn’t even started to appear on the horizon. And let’s be honest, the truth is that those who say this tend to struggle with “Je m’appelle Brian.” in French or any other language. And somehow that’s supposed to make me happy. How, for pity’s sake?

Yes, of course, it’s meant kindly, of course, it’s said to make me feel better. But when you stop to think about it, there is hardly anything you can say which is more othering. This is because no one (at the conference) cares about the absence of your Polish, but they (and I) do care about my English. Here I wanted to have a little tirade about English as the current lingua franca (the irony!), but it’s obvious, isn’t it? I need learn English, and, not exactly paradoxically, you don’t need to learn Polish. Or any other language for that matter.

There is a pressing question, isn’t it? Why do we, foreigners, apologise? Yes, I would love to speak about us, I think there is an ‘us’, but, realistically, I can only talk about me. So why did I apologise? I apologised because I hoped not to appear stupid. As simple as that. And no amount of non-prescriptivist spiel that it all, like really, doesn’t matter, will persuade me that it doesn’t. Of course, it does. Every day I’m told about my (lovely or not) accent, grammar, English. Please don’t tell me it doesn’t matter – don’t insult my intelligence.

You have no idea how many times I had to say that just because I make grammatical mistakes or speak with a heavy accent doesn’t mean that I am stupid. You know, I came to the UK with a doctorate and all of a sudden, all this is questioned just because I make a mistake or two, or even a hundred, when I speak a language I learnt. All of a sudden I become a nitwit who somehow cannot put a sentence together. You also have no idea how wonderful my Polish is. It can be nuanced, cultured, intelligent (yes, yes, I understand the implications of what I say, here I don’t care) in all the ways that my English is not and will never be. I guess, it’s the price I pay for migration. From the wonders of three layers of connotation, I come to a country in which I can, at best, show that I can use subjunctive. That the phrase ‘I be’ is actually possible in a particular context. And there is something as wonderful as it is painful in appreciating the subtlety and nuance of the language of my daughter’s essays. I will never reach that level of linguistic skill. I look at her in awe.

Sapienti sat. There is nothing else I can say to render the discomfort of speaking English which is not exactly perfect, as you tell me that it is, assuming the position of someone who knows best. But I want to end with a suggestion. What would I like to have heard (can you see the complexity of this grammatical structure?) when I apologised? I would have liked to hear: We understand you OK.


    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Your comment assumes that the problem is only about communication skills. And yes, you would be right if it all were about competent language use. The problem is that I don’t think it is. It’s also about how people speaking in a particular way are perceived and think are perceived. The apology, I think, is much more about saying that the way I speak doesn’t tell you (or the audience) whether I am competent, professional, intelligent etc. It is a request to look beyond my grammatical mistakes and focus on what I say. You know, you can say wonderful things with a terrible accent and grammar.

  1. Quite some years ago a referee wrote that he recommended my manuscript be published. I’ve been using this phrase as a referee ever since. Fancy that, it has a name, subjunctive! Well, if this was professor Higgins, am I one of the Doolittles?

  2. Great post! When I started my PhD I often felt stupid as well… especially when I thought I said something smart or relevant, but the people I talked to looked just puzzled or confused. Even more so, when I intended to say something funny, but apparently couldn’t get it out in a way that would convey that. I don’t know if my German is as “wonderful” as your Polish, but I consider myself as being quite sensitive towards language use – and yes – funny 🙂 . That’s why it bothered me so much, as I felt I didn’t express myself as precise as I wanted to. I can’t even begin to imagine how a linguist would feel in those situations; must be much worse! So thanks for sharing!

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Thanks Christiane!
      Oh, trying to be funny in English…That’s for a book not a blogpost 🙂

      1. @RoseAnnieFlo

        Oh go on, a teeny little blog post about how you learned to be funny in English? Please?! 🙂

        That’s the single, most depressing thing that halts my progression in any language – realising how far away I am from being so familiar as to be able to play with the words.

        A book will do fine, if a blog is too hard! I’d buy the book! 😉

      2. Dariusz Galasinski

        But I’m not certain I am funny ‘in English’. If there is humour in what I write (and I do hope there is), it comes from somewhere else than the language. English is still a matter of much frustration for me. I do understand much of humour (not all, but much more than before), but I think playing with words etc. is available to me. Alas!

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