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'Your English Is So Good!'

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Whenever I declared that I was born in a non-English speaking country and lived there until middle school, I frequently got the response, "But, your English is so good!" As if speaking in English was the only mark of intelligence or education.

I was often tempted to reply with the remark, "It is much better than yours!" Their statement was sheer annoyance to me because I had been exposed to English since I began kindergarten at age three. I spoke in English at school and mostly watched television in English. I actually learned all the letters of the English alphabet before I started school by watching Sesame Street.

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Perhaps, I should not have been so infuriated with the compliment; English is one of the harder languages to master, even for someone whose mother tongue is English. I had not given much thought to the idiosyncrasies of the English language until recently. There are some things that simply do not make sense, and perhaps this makes the language challenging to become competent in.

The order that words go in can be tricky, the pronunciation of the words can be different from the spelling, the existence of homophones is confusing, and the past tense of many verbs have no comprehensible pattern.

I can read, write and speak in two other languages in addition to English and have a strong background in a third. My mother tongue is Urdu. However, my children grew up speaking English. After having many entertaining conversations such as the following with my children, I now realize that English is indeed a difficult language to become proficient in.

"If the opposite of hard is soft, then why is the opposite of hard work not soft work? The opposite of complete is incomplete, of decent is indecent, and of accurate is inaccurate. But the opposite of flammable is not inflammable and the opposite of mate is not inmate."

My daughter's kindergarten teacher had given all the students an "All about me" questionnaire to fill out and bring back the second week of school. One of the questions on the list was, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" My daughter, two months short of turning five, asked me to write down "Cooker."

I was quite confused for a few seconds, but then I understood she meant a cook or chef. She loved to pretend-play kitchen so it made sense. I tried not to chuckle and simply wrote down, "Cooker." If someone who buys is a buyer, someone who robs is a robber, someone who paints is a painter, and someone who cleans is a cleaner, why is that someone who cooks is not a cooker?

When my son was four years old, my husband told him that he worked hard at the office. My husband was spending a lot of time at work those days and often returning home late. He asked my son to work equally hard when he grew up. My son looked my husband in the face and then finally said, "I not want to do hard work; I only want to do soft work."

If the opposite of hard is soft, then why is the opposite of hard work not soft work? The opposite of complete is incomplete, of decent is indecent, and of accurate is inaccurate. But the opposite of flammable is not inflammable and the opposite of mate is not inmate.

I was attempting to explain to my son, when he was five, that when God wanted something done all He had to command was "Be" and it happened. My son then pondered for a few seconds and asked me, "Why doesn't 'A' or any other letter of the alphabet work for God? Why does only 'B' work for Him?" I had to bite my lips to prevent myself from giggling.

Why is there a word and an alphabet that have the same sound? 'B' and be and bee, 'C' and sea and see, 'T' and tea and tee, 'Q' and queue, and I as in "I am" and 'I'.

I can think of numerous other times where my children struggled to make the correct selection of words even though they live and breathe in English. Spelling is yet another story. Both my children and I still struggle with spelling.

Do not be annoyed the next time someone tells you that your English is good. Just take it as a compliment. Or you can tell them that their command of the language is equally good or simply needs more work.

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