Tuesday, November 04, 2003

I think my livelihood is in danger: my English is falling to pieces.

If I spend several hours a day speaking to, say, an American, then I begin to think in an American accent. Same goes for Aussies or any others. And now I spend several hours a day talking to people speaking bad English.

It’s easy to think in bad English. Or write also: you make –ing forms where is wrong and infinitivos where should be –ing. Also use same words all the time and miss words for example ‘a’ and ‘the’ and put in where shouldn’t be. And then, suddenly, it gets blurted out: “I’ll say you”. What? Or: “She passes them on to others for make”. I’ve actually said both of those things in the past few days.

A common Italian mistake is to say make when you mean do (see above) and vice versa: like French and Spanish, they’re the same word in Italian. And in Spanish (I don’t speak enough Italian yet to find an example there) English speakers confuse ser and estar: they're different forms of to be. The same goes for creer and pensar, which both mean to think.

This last example, I think, illustrates a good point. Ludwig Wittgenstien, in a quote stuck to the wall in the school I work at, said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”. He maintained that there were no philosophical problems – the classic questions philosophers toy with – but merely linguistic puzzles; if we have a problem it’s only because we’re not using clear language. This clear language - with properly defined terms - solves the apparant problems. (If you know more than me about this – and there’s a good chance you do – and I have some detail wrong then, please, keep yer mouth shut.)

Now, in general I think this is codswallop (there’s a word I won’t be teaching in an English lesson). However the Spanish creer/pensar example illustrates that the point is sometimes true since creer also means to believe. So the Spanish language manages to distinguish between thinking – pensar – and believing – creer (which is often – lets tell the truth here – the opposite of thinking, but more of that below); this distinction is lost in everyday English and so we often find ourselves in one of Wittgenstein’s linguistic puzzles.

For example, in English we may say “I think that if I add some garlic to this then you’ll like it more”. Here the Spanish translation of I think comes from pensar: the speaker is drawing a conclusion through reasoning. However for, say, “I think there’s a God” (may as well shoot at the bullseye eh?) then the translation comes from creer; here the speaker is not conducting reasoning but rather stating a belief. Thus, in Spanish, one is forced in everyday conversation to acknowledge the difference between accepted wisdom and concluded thought.

(Of course, there are plenty of good reasons for thinking there’s a God: there’s 300 of them here, for a start. Number 194 is my favourite.)

There is, however, a further linguistic division that doesn’t occur in English or Spanish (if there is a language is which this division does occur I’d love to know about it). There’s a definite difference between belief based on trust and belief based on faith yet we use the same verb – to believe – for both. The first is earnt – or at least based on reasonable assumptions – and is easily removed (if the trust is abused). This second property is the key distinction between the two; belief based on faith isn’t easily removed. In fact, it’s the opposite: faith is precisely continuing to hold a belief in the face of ‘challenges’ to it. This failure of our language to distinguish between the two leaves us, again, in one of Wittgenstein’s puzzles.

By not making this distinction in our day-to-day language we give a credibility to faith that it doesn’t deserve. Lets be clear: faith is dogma; nothing more, nothing less. But I'll save the full-on onslaught of dogmatic thinking for another day.

I’ve digressed somewhat from my starting point: the deteriation of my own English. However, as way of linking this all together, let me tell you that I’ve just had to spend five minutes thinking about whether it’s “onslaught of dogmatic thinking”, “onslaught to dogmatic thinking” or something else and I still don’t think it’s right. If it is wrong then tell me but also - and more importantly - please tell me your piensas on my piensas.

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