Strangely familiar, yet oh so foreign; on learning English and hanging out with Anglophones

I am two weeks into my new job as an “English Associate” with AMIDEAST here in Rabat, and things are going as well as could be expected. This month has been all about making friendly relationships with my roommates, my new co-workers, my students, and most surprisingly, the English language.

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Until recently, I’ve had a one-sided relationship with the English language. Like in any ones-sided relationship, the notion of power reigns. S(he) who beholds the power, is the baller shot-caller. With English I believed that I was running the show; I thought I was able to manipulate English to my advantage in pretty much any situation. After all, I’m usually able to select the most appropriate situations to implement my words directly or discursively. I can consciously pepper my sentences with humor and sarcasm, and engage mouthfuls of beautiful American slang. Naturally, I thought I was a true master of the English language… Needless to say, my extraterrestrial ego has been shattered, and I have been brought back to planet earth as a humble servant of the English language.

This gracious humbling has come in two forms: 1) English grammar, and 2) mingling with other native English speakers from around the globe.

It wasn’t until I began teaching English that I realized how much I still had to learn. I’ve taken being a native speaker for granted my entire life, and never considered what a complete pain in the ass it would be to learn English as a foreign language. As I stood in front of my Intermediate 4 class last Tuesday, I thought I was ready. However, my concept of being prepared was   a Powerpoint full of grammar I couldn’t explain, which I wrongly assumed would be to sufficient. Not even my background with improv could have prepared me for the ensuing hour and a half class, which I filled with lots of um’s and nervous shifty body language. For some context, on that particular day I was teaching a lesson on the 1st conditional–a concept that I have a strong natural grasp of, but very little theoretical training on. How many of you know what the 1st conditional means? …Exactly. To be VERY brief, we use conditionals when we are making “If” statements. An EXAMPLE of the 3rd conditional: If I had known this grammar point before class, I could have avoided the embarrassment of standing in front of 20 students like a deer in headlights promising to find out for Thursday.

This will surely be the first of many grammar points that I won’t be able to explain off the top of my head, because I never learned them in school. I learned to speak English naturally and correctly through immersion. I understand the frustration of my students, however, because I too have studied a foreign language, and I need the rules as much as the next person. Just ask me about French prepositions or feminine/masculine articles and I’ll launch into a tirade about how absolutely non-sensical they are. If you’re telling me to memorize something just because it SOUNDS right, but can’t give me any sort of structure or rule to apply it to, you will completely lose me.

My second (less distressing) realization that I was not a true Jedi of the English language came to me while mingling in the teachers lounge. Before coming to Rabat to teach English, my sole exposure to British slang was from the Harry Potter movies. However, here, I have been exposed to native English speakers from Australia, the U.K., and Canada, and I have begun to take careful note of their different accents and words. I love these other dialects of English because there is something so familiar about them, yet at the same time they are absolutely foreign. There have been many moments where I wonder if we truly do speak the same language. As a result, I’ve found myself analyzing my own slang, my usage of the word “like,” and my pronunciation of words with double t’s or d’s.

My favorite British colloquialisms thus far are for the word awesome: ace* and brilliant. I’ve promised myself to start using them in my everyday speech. However, I end up saying them with a monstrous British accent and all my co-workers think I’m making fun of them. But I’m not. I actually think they are brilliant.

I love the irony of the English teacher learning her own language, and I am now a firm believer that in order to be a true master of English you must hold an understanding of all the ridiculously complicated grammar rules and the various dialects. So maybe I won’t come home from Morocco with a stronger grasp of French or Spanish or Darija, but I can assure you that I will be well schooled in the many facets of English.

*Ace may be the American equivalent to rad. i.e. outdated. However, like certain fashion styles, I believe words, too, should come back into style. Therefore, I have recently re-added rad, gnarly and dope back into my vocabulary… so I’m pleasantly pleased to have ace.

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3 thoughts on “Strangely familiar, yet oh so foreign; on learning English and hanging out with Anglophones

  1. Peg Vasko says:

    Such brilliant writing!

  2. Betsy Austin says:

    So Lizzie…..what’s your take now on how we teach “English class” here at home? I was forever frustrated, and frankly appalled, at the lack of knowledge on the part of students of our own language structure and terms thereof. I had to introduce the concept of “direct object” or active vs. passive voice,etc…Granted, learning to diagram sentences back in the 1960’s probably didn’t make for an exciting class or generate passion for creative writing, but still…..And I met English teachers who hated teaching any form of grammar and couldn’t! It just makes it so much more helpful when one goes about learning another language!
    I like “ace”:)

  3. Johnd131 says:

    Very informative article post.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic. kekfdbaaecbc

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