Some months ago, my mother and I were taking part in our favourite pastime (entering competitions we have no chance of winning) when we were asked which languages we speak, and to rate our competency from one (“holiday phrases”) to five (“mastered”), for market research. “Click five,” I said to Mum as she hesitated over English. “But I wasn’t born here,” she replied. “There are many words I don’t know. I’m not a master.”
Truly, no one is as preoccupied with language in the abstract quite like immigrants and linguists: Noam Chomsky and my uncle Tariq (who always replies to anyone saying the slang, “Izzit?!” with, “Yes, it is”) are unlikely bedfellows.
I’ve been thinking about this as we emerge from lockdown and speak to humans in the flesh – and I’ve noticed my own language failings more often.
I mispronounce words – a telltale sign of learning through reading rather than hearing. No matter how many times I’m told “monk” is pronounced “munk”, it still comes out like “bonk”, which is probably inappropriate. And I mix up idioms – though I’ve started to appreciate that as a fun game for my boyfriend.
“Corporations announce their diversity work with a lot of horn blowing,” I might say, as he begins code-breaking: “Blowing your own trumpet? Shoehorn? Ooh, you mean fanfare!” Or: “So sad about the arts. Some quality creatives being left in the cupboard,” I say. “On the shelf!” he’ll shout, in a winning cry.
Have I mastered English? I hadn’t questioned it: it’s the only language I speak. But it still eludes me; it is never fully knowable, a slippery prey that cannot be caught. I am no master. No one can be. A language is just too big and ever-changing. Besides, it’s in the mistakes that magic happens. I was an English student at university. And I’ve learned I always will be.