Last week, I got into a discussion with my fellow copyeditor about English as a second language (ESL). Sort of. We were discussing the number of staff writers and contributors that we have who speak and write English as a second (or third, or fifth) language. The general consensus of our conversation was: “They really are the best. Seriously.” I know, pretty lackluster for people who deal with words for a living. Don’t judge. Anyway, I can’t remember the reason we even got started talking about it in the first place, but it basically boils down to the fact that I’m in complete awe of people who don’t speak English as their primary language who write for a primarily English-speaking magazine.
English is hard, y’all. It only sort of makes sense in the best-case scenarios, and is a holy mess the rest of the time. We shouldn’t even bother having spelling and grammar rules, because there are so many exceptions that the rules are pretty much pointless. There is absolutely no consistency whatsoever, and, unlike almost every other language, you can’t obtain proficiency by simply memorizing the rules of grammar; instead, you have to memorize every single stupid quirk and idiosyncrasy of the language. I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly do that. And yet, so many do.
I fully acknowledge the linguistic privilege that comes from growing up in an English-speaking household, raised by two teachers who were responsible, at least partially, for making sure their students (and their children) had a mastery of the language. I’m also incredibly lucky to have gone to college, where I essentially majored in words. I studied words and sentences and works of literature intensively. And, frankly, I think people who learned English as a second language worked much harder than I ever did.
When I first started editing for Persephone, I came across a few articles that kind of stood out at me. The syntax and construction was just a little off. I’d seen this before when I was editing academic papers, usually when people were writing about things outside of their main disciplines. And then someone mentioned that this writer or that does not speak English as their primary language. And suddenly, all of the pieces fell into place. Their syntax looked off to me because it was logical. Their writing followed specifically set rules as to where words go in a sentence, how prefixes and suffixes are used, and how sentences are assembled. Of course it looked strange to me. English doesn’t follow any of those rules, not consistently, at least. What is even more interesting to me is that once I know a writer’s primary language, I can deconstruct and reconstruct their sentences pretty easily. Most languages have their own flow, certain “tells” that indicate when a native speaker is writing in a language other than their primary one. But the fact that anyone who learned English after first being fluent or proficient in another language can write an article fit for publication and easily read, understood, and discussed is absolutely astounding to me.
And I can’t even begin to tell you how impressed I am with our writers who are non-native English-speakers. Not to mention our commenters. I see comments sometimes, not just here, but other places, in which people apologize for their writing, explaining that English isn’t their first language. And I just wish I could convey, in this complicated and ridiculous mess of words that is the English language, just how incredible I find it. Learning another language, any language, is difficult, but English is its own particular brand of messy, and anyone who is willing to try to tackle that, and then share their efforts with others, has nothing but my complete respect.
So I never want to hear or read anyone apologizing for their imperfect English. I guarantee that even with a lifetime of study, I could never be as proficient in another language as so many non-native speakers are in English. So say what’s on your mind, write out what you have to say, and don’t apologize. If anyone has a problem with whatever tiny technical errors you might make, you just tell ’em to talk to the Grammar Bitch.