We are much more intelligent than we give ourselves credit for. During my first few weeks at University I have realised the technicality of the English language. It is not uncommon when asked how many languages people speak to reply, “Oh, I only speak English”. Actually, despite being a native speaker myself I now realise the depth of the English language. For every single second we are speaking we are using so many techniques.
This relates to the word structure; we naturally know what order words should be placed in a sentence and when we say something which is grammatically incorrect we know why. We know what morphemes (little building blocks used to create words) to add on the end of a word to either pluralise or change the tense. We can turn morphemes into a whole different word class simply by adding letters. We use can deitics (simply known as verbal pointing “this and that”) to naturally avoid repetition in a sentence. We understand what we should and shouldn’t say in a situation (Pragmatics). We realise the importance of power in a conversation and who acts as the agenda setter. We know how to effectively pronounce words and sounds simply by breathing. All these things we do on a daily basis and we don’t even realise!
There are so many depths to English that we are oblivious to. I feel as if my eyes have been opened to how technical formulating words are. For example I never knew that the word Fax is the shortened version of the word facsimile or that scuba is an acronym (standing for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus!). Even though I have been speaking English all of my life I am still learning.
Everyday situations seem to be different now I have become aware of these techniques. This links to Chomsky’s theory of competence and performance. We have competence of English and we know how to talk to others, performance takes into account what is relevant in context. I was on the train the other day and two women got onboard. They were deep in discussion about a visit to a One Direction concert. Meanwhile, everyone else on the train took shelter from listening to their music or reading a book. They continued their discussion and I admire them greatly for having the confidence to be oblivious to what the other people on the train were doing.
As the journey progressed the conversation changed to the state of health of the women’s father. In theory, this was probably not the most sensitive place for the discussion on a busy morning train. Despite this, the context of the women’s conversation was that of two friends having a conversation, as you would in a restaurant or coffee shop.
Initially I was shocked they were speaking at a volume that the majority of passengers would be able to hear. However, reflecting back this would not have been uncommon a few years ago. It is only now that society and the use of English has adapted to text or messages. If everyone else on the train was conversing there would not be any attention drawn upon the friends. In today’s society we are much more introvert focusing on minimal communication. We prefer to preoccupy ourselves on the train rather than facing the thought of having to talk to someone.
Just this simple train journey highlights how rapidly our use of English changes and how it influences our relationship with other people. Studying this change is one of the reasons I love studying English. Therefore, the next time someone asks you how many languages you speak be proud of the fact you “only speak English”.