In 2010, the city of Lino Lakes adopted a resolution that English was its official language. Although the nearby city of Lindström had a controversy when the state eliminated the umlaut (two dots) on their “o,” I doubted Lino Lakes was afraid of a Swedish onslaught. New Prague is too far away for them to worry about the Czechs. Perhaps they feared an influx of French from Lac qui Parle?
Historically, Minnesota has accommodated the languages of many immigrants. Back in 1896, official election instructions were published in nine languages: English, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, French, Czech, Italian and Polish. That was about the time my grandmother settled in Heron Lake, Minnesota, where the whole town spoke German. My mother didn’t speak English until she went to school. Grandma would never have learned English except for the World Wars that made speaking German akin to sleeping with the devil.
This English-only nonsense makes me angry, but I recognize the importance of understanding English in our society. It makes life easier. So, rather than just rant, I decided I could help by volunteering at English language classes. If the city council in Lino Lakes thinks it is easy to learn English, I challenge them to try teaching it.
Sure, I could explain the obvious “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” but English has so many peculiarities. Explaining spelling is impossible — much like my spelling lists in elementary school. Our language is full of silent letters in words like “knew,” “gnat,” “pneumonia,” “comb,” or even “Wednesday.”
Pronunciation should come from the spelling, but not in English. Take the -ough words. Sometimes they sound like “f” in enough, or “o” in dough or “u” in through, or even “ow” like in plough. As a native speaker we just know these things, but it makes no sense to students of English. Why are “cough” and “hiccough” pronounced differently?
I had never realized how many ways we pronounce the -ed in the past tense. Worked has a “t” sound, but played is just a “d.” Wanted uses the whole “id.” There actually are formal rules explaining four different ways we pronounce –ed depending on the ending sound of the verb. But like any good rule, there are exceptions like the adjectives aged “id” and learned “id.” Sure native speakers just know those differences, but how do you teach that?
With verbs, we comfortably use about 20 different tenses including the oddly named future present and the complex pluperfect progressive passive. “I realized I’d been being watched,” indicates an extended state of action that happened prior to another action in the past. Add in the irregular verbs like “run/ran,” “go/went,” “lay/laid,” and “lie/laid” which leads to that whole “lie” vs. “lay” mess. A chicken lays an egg, but lies on her nest. Phew!
Why do we do things “in” a certain year, “on” a specific date, but “at” a specific time? I live “in” Savage, but “at” an address, “on” a street.
I can’t “wrap my head around” how to teach idioms. Translated literally, they make no sense. Although I “let the cat out of the bag,” I usually “let sleeping dogs lie.” Perhaps I “bit off more than I could chew” trying to explain phrases like “piece of cake,” “keep your eyes peeled,” and “over my dead body.” “At the drop of a hat,” we use these odd expressions that make no literal sense.
English is largely made up of rules we don’t know that we know. Remember the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” Change the order to “My Fat Greek Big Wedding” and it sounds wrong. We have a rigid hierarchy for the order of adjectives: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, purpose. Mix these up and you have gibberish. “Riding red little hood?”
Another rule we don’t know we know is the rule of ablaut reduplication. Think “flip-flop,” “hip-hop,” “chit-chat,” or “King Kong.” The vowels are always in the order I, A, O… “bish, bash, bosh.” The “big bad wolf” breaks the order of adjectives because the rule of ablaut reduplication supersedes it. Got that?
It is often said the best way to learn anything is to teach it. I have finally learned some of my eighth grade grammar lessons, but I’ve also learned humility. Every week, I find something new that I don’t know. Plus, I’ve gained empathy. Learning English is difficult.
In addition, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing people, listen to their stories, and learn about their cultures. Being exposed to people, religions, and cultures different than mine has opened my heart to being more tolerant of others. I’m awed at how hard these folks are working to adjust to life in Minnesota.
I also get to see the United States through fresh eyes. As a native born citizen, I take so many things for granted. But these immigrants are showing me a new appreciation for this country. I may be helping these students learn English, but they are teaching me gratitude.
Rochelle Eastman is one of several people in the Savage community who write for Community Voices.