English For Dummies

English For Dummies

Aleksandra Lojek-Magdziarz,

Tuesday January 15, 2008
Article history

Immigrants coming to the UK are often encouraged to learn English, and most of the ones I know study hard. Many arrive already equipped with a decent command of the native tongue, which simply needs polishing up, yet sometimes it would appear that they have to filter their English to adjust to their native interlocutor's imperfect grasp of their own first language.
Many of my migrant friends tell me that while washing dishes in English pubs and restaurants they have to reduce the range of their vocabulary, because unless they do so, nobody understands them (and I must stress that these are not my fellow PhD students or academics). And, as they tell me, this is not an issue over the use of slang or cockney, so fascinating to the newcomers (especially their etymologies), but over words we think of as regular, everyday vocabulary, readily found in any newspaper.
In time, following my first conversations with many Brits, the need for this alternate version of English also became "plain" to me. When I mentioned to a public office clerk that somebody had used a euphemism, the man made a very peculiar face and demanded a translation. Then recently, a journalist friend of mine admitted that he had never heard the term "instrumentalisation", and informed me with unchecked disgust that he thought it ugly. The question of aesthetics is a very personal thing, but what I most prize in English is the fact that if it frequently borrows vocabulary, recreates it according to its own need and immediately re-influences dozens of other languages. So (thus) instrumentalisation has found its way into Polish as "instrumentalizacja" and, as far as I know, does not cause loathing in anyone.
This process of switching between English and its "plain" variety is often a difficult task, because English is a language famed for its rich vocabulary. But what is most puzzling is how strongly this phenomena varies depending on which social stratum we are referring to. This difference between formal and informal can be found anywhere in the world, but I dare say that it is particularly noticeable in England, since this is the only nation I am aware of which has felt it necessary to invent a simplified version of its own mother tongue.
When I first came across plain English, I had not known know what it meant and paid it scant attention, but then in one of British newspaper I found a supplement (like this one [pdf])with a dictionary of English words meticulously translated into their "plain" variety. Ostensibly, regular English appeared to be too complex to be understood by, I would guess, ordinary people. In this new Newspeak I came across "thus" reconstituted as "so", the passive voice replaced with the active and long, beautifully constructed sentences reduced to strands of factually correct words, stripped of all the spirit of elegant English I've always adored. Nu-Newspeak, if you like.
I fully understand the need to effectively communicate with as many people as much of the time as possible, including those who might be thought of as educationally underprivileged, but I cannot accept the idea of oversimplification in a language as rich as English. Not when this process ends in it becoming an artificially impoverished hybrid. As a result, educated people are becoming intellectually lazy, forced to limit their vocabulary and syntax in an attempt to be understood by everybody. Which can plainly never happen. Worse yet, this lack of precision may, in turn, cause misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
To me, the brain should be subject to rigorous intellectual practice and training all the time. Otherwise, inevitably, it starts to work slower. Therefore, when I see in Wikipedia a separate category called Simple English, I cannot resist the feeling that ordinary people are being discriminated against and treated as incapable of facing the challenge of learning and improving their abilities.
I am glad to see that people who somehow struggle with their mother tongue can learn something anyway. But they should be given more trust. Great writers produced their masterworks in unabridged English (however, Mark Twain, for example, appreciated the advantages of writing plainly). They certainly did not wish their works to be simplified as they honed their style and vocabulary to perfection. It reminds me of a telling scene in the film Amadeus, where the confused Emperor Joseph II says to Mozart that his opera has "too many notes". This, it would seem to me, is how plain English works.
In my opinion, complicated matters should be presented in a way that is both clear and effective enough for a great number of people to comprehend them; but at the same time I object to this process of "dumbing down". I do not feel comfortable in a situation in which I, a Polish emigrant, whose English needs endless brushing up, has to translate words into plain English when engaging in a discussion with native speakers. I came here, among others, to enjoy the beauty of a sophisticated, extremely rich and exciting language (not just to earn a living), to the country that has already produced some the greatest poetry and prose known to human kind.
"Be short, be simple, be human" said Sir Ernest Gowers, by which I assume he did not mean "oversimplify your language to the point where it loses its spirit". To get rid of legalese and gobbledygook is a very useful thing, since both are a no more than linguistic litter. But please, do not allow the graceful "thus" to be replaced with "so" all the time. People are able to learn vast amounts at every stage of their life, but the demands made on them by the educational system must be high. If you decide to translate everything into plain English, you cannot be surprised that society, denied mental stimulation, sinks ever lower in their intellectual capabilities.


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