A thriving corner of the English rainforest

Posted by on November 15, 2010

Mexican English month brings you a guest post by Jeremy Harmer, a writer of methodology and coursebooks for English Language Teaching. Jeremy teaches on the MATESOL at the New School, New York. He is a keen amateur musician who plays with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than talent, gives numerous talks and speeches about English Language Teaching, and performs on stage in a variety of guises. He is also an active member of the blogosphere.

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What am I doing writing a blog post about Mexican English? After all I am English English. I speak absolutely standard British English for a person of my age and my upbringing.

But there was a time when my perception of English was subtly altered, like so many Inner Circle people who live and work outside their home countries (such as Britain, the US, Australia, Ireland etc). I was living and teaching in Mexico and it was here that I was able to witness the way in which people appropriate English and mould it to their own ends – or rather the way in which the English that Mexicans used (and I mean good competent successful English rather than, say, beginner English) has its own special ‘feel’ and norms. An example? Homework. In Mexico (as in many Spanish-speaking countries) it seems to be a countable noun rather than being mostly uncountable as it is in many Inner Circle varieties. You would have thought, therefore, that teachers in the institute where I worked would have corrected students when they said “I haven’t done my homeworks”, but we didn’t because it was, well, it was right, we thought – or maybe we just stopped noticing after a time. It was good Mexican English.

Homeworks is only one example, but it shows how English can be moulded and shifted in subtle ways, which, however, have no negative impact on intelligibility at all.

One day back then in Guadalajara, my ‘Juniors’ co-ordinator (I was the director of the institute) came into my office to discuss a problem. She was (and is) British and uses a variety almost identical to mine. On that day she explained her problem and then she said: “Or I could do it myself. Or I could ask the teachers to do it.” Nothing wrong with that, except that she was using Spanish grammar in her English. In her (and my) home variety we would normally say “I could do it myself or I could ask the teachers to do it,” rather than start the whole sentence with or as Jean did.

Most British and American people start adopting Mexicenglish after they have lived in Mexico a bit. Our tag questions rapidly turn into “Yes? No?” as in “I’ll see you at seven. Yes? No?” with the characteristic intonation of a typical Mexican speaker. English with a Mexican lilt.

Does any of this matter? No, of course not (in my opinion). Anyone who speaks good competent Mexican English can be and is understood all over the world by other competent English speakers. Of course in more formal writing and speaking, there is a greater need for consistency than in more informal speech and written chat – and exams have their own norms and demands. But in all other respects Mexican English is a beautiful and exotic variety that lives in the English rainforest along with all the other species whether Scottish, New Zealandish, Turkish, Greek or Indonesian!

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Comments (6)
  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by twirled aur twisted, Macmillan Dictionary. Macmillan Dictionary said: Guest blog by Jeremy Harmer on 'a thriving corner of the English rainforest' – http://bit.ly/dBzwMQ […]

    Posted by Tweets that mention A thriving corner of the English rainforest | Macmillan -- Topsy.com on 15th November, 2010
  • Great post! How about turning the verb ‘to agree’ into an adjective, roughly matching the Spanish prepositional phrase ‘de acuerdo’, and use it as complement of the verb BE (e.g. “I am agree”) as most Spanish speakers do?

    Or anglicizing Spanish words like ‘estrenar’ (to wear a new item of clothing for the first time), thus turning it into ‘strenate’: “Are you strenating?”

    Or the overuse of negative questions: “Haven’t you seen Ana? I’ve been looking for her all day.”

    Gold.

    Posted by Ramiro Padilla on 16th November, 2010
  • The word of homework is also a countable noun in Turkish. We you translate word by word we say like “I have a lot of homeworks.”

    Posted by bilal yılmaz on 16th November, 2010
  • Jeremy is surely right that, from the point of view of effective communication within a specific speech community, there really is nothing wrong with saying ‘homeworks’ (and Bilal’s Comment shows that this plural form isn’t confined to Mexico).
    But where does this leave dictionaries? Our goal is to describe the language as it is used by mother-tongue speakers, and I believe that this is what most users of our dictionaries expect us to do. Consequently, our entry for ‘homework’ includes a grammar note saying that it is ‘uncountable’. In some cases, we go even further: look, for example, at the ‘Get it Right’ boxes in the entries for information, evidence, or knowledge. These boxes are based on an analysis of large volumes of learners’ writing, which shows that these three words – uncountable in mother-tongue English – are very often pluralised by people whose first language isn’t English, and the notes there explicitly warn users to avoid this tendency.
    I would be interested to know what people think of this: is the information useful, or are we seeking to impose a norm which many users of English don’t recognise or follow?

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 16th November, 2010
  • I think it is always worth pointing out the most correct or most natural way of saying something (in a teaching context, of course). I’ve been speaking Spanish for twenty years now and I am always grateful and interested when someone points out a mistake or less than natural usage. I may not be able to change it if it has become fossilized but I am always glad to know and usually wish that someone had told me years earlier. There is a big difference between wanting to know how question tags work but still continuing with ‘Yes? No?’ and actually not being interested in how they work. Anyone genuinely interested in learning a language would want to know (whether they want or are able to use it or not is another matter) and so yes it is important that dictionaries try to transmit the most correct or standard usage and try to point out common mistakes – who wouldn’t want that guidance?

    Posted by Sean Mitchell on 22nd November, 2010
  • A student of universitiy level used to say “bomberman” to refer to a firefighter, that in Spanish is “bombero”. I think this happened because he knew the cartoon superheroe “Batman” . It´s so funny, because nowadays this is a nice anecdote at school and students know they shouldn´t say “bomberman”. Sometimes they play and make new words like this.

    Posted by claudia quiroz on 12th December, 2010
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