• Abigail

Teaching language

Native speakers really get away with murder – linguistic murder, that is.

All too often, I catch myself stifling a groan when I see statements such as I should of (correction: I should have), or signs advertising fruit and vegetable’s (correction: fruit and vegetables). The list goes sadly on.

Most non-native speakers – particularly those who are of an intermediate level or higher – will be puzzled by these mistakes, which go altogether unnoticed by some native speakers. This is because they will likely have had structured language lessons in which they had to learn grammar rules in order to acquire their second language. But until we start school, we as native speakers absorb what we hear around us: the contracted form I should’ve sounds remarkably like I should of, and so the latter has now wormed its way into fairly common usage.

I can’t say I remember really learning English grammar terms and structures at school; it wasn’t until I started learning French, German and particularly Latin at secondary school that I finally fully understood what a noun or a verb was. So, learning to teach English as a foreign language swiftly brought my subconscious, native-speaker language skills to a conscious level of understanding.

When I finished school, I was looking to broaden my cultural awareness and immerse myself in the languages I would soon be studying at university: French and Russian. So, I decided to go travelling and before I set off, I completed a TESOL qualification – an intensive, full-time course with practical teaching experience and a crash course in some of the more complex grammar structures and language concepts that learners need to understand.

I continued teaching on and off over the next few years and then when I graduated from my undergraduate degree, I went full-time, teaching FCE and IELTS exam groups as well as absolute beginners, advanced students and everything in between.

It was tough at times, but every day forced me to look at my native language in a way I never had before, deconstructing verb tenses, moods and aspects to make them accessible for learners, exploring tone and register and finding ways to explain concepts such as phrasal verbs. (OK, there’s some logic in putting on a jacket, but giving up just needs to remembered!)

Language is a living thing, of course – it is constantly evolving to keep up with our need to express new concepts and name the latest technological developments, and in these times of increasing globalisation, we also borrow terms from other languages.

I have to make an effort, therefore, not to be overly purist about grammar usage. There are times when strict, formal language is entirely appropriate and even necessary, but at other times, bending (without altogether breaking!) linguistic rules makes for a more creative translation and establishes an approachable style.

A fellow translator (French and Spanish to English) and my former mentor, Kate Stansfield, puts her finger on exactly why grammar rules are important, and why it pays to look at seemingly minor details in your writing:

I can say with certainty that developing a hawkish eye for grammar errors in my students’ writing, including misplaced apostrophes and commas, are skills that have come in handy in my translation and editing career. Equally, my awareness of English helps me find the most appropriate tone and style when translating or editing different text types. I also have to mention the very talented linguists and project managers who I’ve been privileged enough to work with and who have forced me to continually hone these skills!

I can’t claim to know everything there is to know about the English language, and I don’t claim to get everything right all of the time. But I am trained to find and fix anything that, as Kate proves, could detract from the understanding of your text and therefore undermine your brand, product or service.

Any native speaker can write, but a trained translator or editor will ensure that your text is free from even common errors and therefore looks professional.

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