For a person who has had English as a second language since preschool, speaking and writing in English would have been a walk in the park. However, when English need to be used in another English-speaking country where cultural and linguistic peculiarities give rise to complexities and a mouthful of confusing dialectics and translations, the trouble with learning and understanding the language comes in. Learning English requires more than knowing its formalities and structure but also demands an understanding of the cultural dynamics and context within which it is found and acquired. I am a Filipino.
In the Philippines, English has long been embedded in the education curriculum since pre-school. In fact, a number of subjects or courses are being taught using the English instruction. Math and science are taught in English. There were even Reading and Language subjects which teach the structural formalities of the English language. Students were literally forced to learn and embrace the language to the extent of imposing fines on students who were caught for not speaking in English in homerooms within certain hours of the day. How can I complain? I enjoyed the language and found it a very interesting and diverse tongue.
The educators and the government called it an approach to globalization and a tool for coping with it. Perhaps, the government strategy was correct. The global community recognized that most Filipinos are good English speakers and that fact opened up the country to more foreign investments. For most of my life, I have been what one may call “English-minded. ” I can read, write, converse and think in English. The problem is, what we Filipinos have become so accustomed to is nothing more than American English. I, myself, am accustomed to observing only the American English structure whether in verbal or written form.
My pronunciation and diction is more American. Even my use of slang is American. The government strategy of inculcating English into the Filipino system has even given us the American mentality—the love of anything American, of embracing hip-hop, of eating Mac Donald’s burger, of wearing low waist Levis jeans. For the longest time, we have managed to mingle our Filipino culture and language with that of American language. In school, I remember being taught formal American English in classroom through aided discussions and practical exercises.
We have books written entirely in English and our teachers would have prepared answer sheets with grammar questions and exercises. Reading comprehension was a favorite. Most of my formal language learning was supplied through classroom intervention. It was through classroom that I learned about nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. It was also in the classroom where I learned that the letter “d” is read silently in “Wednesday. ” The rest of my language proficiency, however, I learned from interaction and exposure to a lot of English media. It was not difficult to access English materials, after all.
Our radios are flooded with US Billboard hits and our televisions, lambasted with MTV and a lot of English canned shows. Even the cinemas were full of Hollywood flicks with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and all other Hollywood hotties. It would come to no surprise then that when I needed to move to Australia for economic reasons, I found myself in a somewhat different dimension with English shaped in a very odd structure. In fact, I was shocked and I almost fell off my seat when a nice looking lady told me in her distinct Australian accent that I was “gross! ” I was offended by what I thought was a rude remark from such a nice-looking lady.
At another instance, a stranger referred to me as “Sheila” when it was not even my name. Never did I realize that English could be more challenging, and alien to me, in an English-speaking country as Australia. Since I have had English practically my entire life, I thought I was indispensable and I could survive the rigors of conversing even in Australian English. I was wrong. I practically needed to reconcile my life-long learned second language with that of Australian English while putting my Filipino self and cultural meanings within the context of my new social environment.
In Language Studies, we were taught that language, culture and society are so intertwined that one cannot exist without an understanding of the other. I have always thought that English is English no matter where I go. I realized that it was not the case. As cited by Basnette: “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. ” (Basnette cited in Yazici p. 86)
I found myself struggling in between words and sentences as I listened to Australian speakers deliver their pieces. The pronunciation was different, so much so that my American English-trained mind and tongue needed to digest and take the meanings word for word. I found myself trying to read lips as they spoke just like a child learning his first words. The Australian written English was easier, though. The spellings and the formal structure were almost the same except for some British spellings such a “metre” for the usual English “meter.
The only problem was that the written sentences may not necessarily mean the same way it does if taken in American context and neither does my own personal and direct Filipino translation do any good as well. I found myself going back to basics. I bought a new Australian electronic pocket dictionary and a number of learn-it-yourself language compact discs. Since I was a newbie, I thought I could learn it on my own while driving to and from work, or while lying on my couch. It did help, but only to a certain extent. The formalities were good, but then, in real life, it simply did not jive with the way Australians really talk.
The politeness which I listen to is sort of remote from the slight “rudeness” in actual Australian language. Then I realized the impact of culture and social context in linguistic development. As I started immersing in the Aussie community, I began to understand the nuisances and peculiarities of the language and came to appreciate its diversity as against that of my own language and that of American English. As soon as became more accustomed to my Aussie neighbors and peers, I indulged myself in the language and trained my tongue and ear in the Australian accent.
In the middle of sentences, I found coherence and structure. I learned their slang by contextualizing it. I began to understand that “gross” in Australia meant “nice” and not the offending American English. I also got to understand that “Sheila” meant a young woman and not the name I thought it was referring to. In the process, I also learned the Australian culture and how language was embedded in it. Practice was foremost an important thing in language learning. My interaction with the community gave me the opportunity to practice the language, and to speak as I listen.
I learned to assume their tongue and pronounce words the way they do. Before, I learned that “d” was silent in “Wednesday”. Then I learned that the Australian “Wednesday” is pronounced as resounding “Wenes-die”. Media was also a good companion in my learning process. The more Australian movies and music I became exposed to, the better I learned about the language and the propriety of usage and application of expressions and idioms. Apparently, Australia’s culture and history has an impact, and justification, for their linguistic stature.
Its language is characterized by a rich and diverse collection of vocabulary, idioms and slang compiled through Aboriginal, British and American influences (Mak). I was surprised at the unusual friendliness or seeming forwardness of Australian language. Australian English is said to be egalitarian, or characterized by democracy and seemingly lack of censorship or restriction (Convict Creations).
It would be usual for people to call their higher ups by their first name, or even greet their politicians with a simple and forward “G’day, how ya goin’? Even formal letters are opened with “Dear first name” rather than addressing the recipient with Ms. /Mr. /Mrs. In Filipino or even American cultural contexts this may seem impolite, but in Australia, it was just in order. Australian English language also accommodated of a lot of inconsistencies in as much as the American English does. Rote learning, a learning style typically employed in formal grammar instruction also referred to as Parrot Learning or Regurgitation whereby the student takes anything the teacher says as gospel, seemed an inappropriate style in learning Australian English (Convict Creations).
It could be true because formal Australian English was more difficult for me to reconcile and learn. It made it more convenient for me to learn the language through actual practice and immersion than through textbooks. The Australian’s use of slang is used to show that the speaker belongs to the same group as the listener. Australians are constantly breaking down psychological barriers of formality and social distance through their use of slang. This breaking down of psychological barriers of formality results in a kind of invasion of personal space which has been known to offend foreigners (Mak).
My Australian English learning process was a tedious, but remarkable one. It gave me a sense that in learning a second or even a third language, I should not limit myself to a vacuum because language involves more than just the combination of words knitted in structures and forms, but more so, an interrelationship and intermeshing of cultural and social influences set in different contexts. It is but remarkable to note that the English language is continually minimizing the world into one global community as English is becoming more and more the common language of trade and interaction among different cultures.
If this trend continues, it is not surprising to find people from different ends of the globe speaking in one common language. The fact is, the basics of English is the same wherever part of the world it may be used. To be able to interact in this global community though, one must not only learn how to speak or write the language, but must also learn to embrace or at least recognize the cultural context within which it may be found.