Losing My [English]
One of the bizarre side effects of living in a non-English speaking country is that you lose your language. Just a little bit. Just enough to notice how strangely you are suddenly speaking, with host-country fellows as well as native speakers, in a sort of “special English” that is shaped to the culture. There are a few symptoms of this affliction of special English, some of which are specific to Azerbaijan, and some of which I think are probably the same everywhere.
First, we slow down our speaking cadence, and we enunciate with a halting flow, jerking ourselves from one word to the next. I think it’s fair to say that this is something universal. When we’re with non-native speakers, we sort of wiggle our way through conversations, testing out words that they could understand, maybe trying to substitute a word in the local language to help it along. Or we may have to pause to think about how to explain a concept clearly. This adjustment to our speaking becomes particularly apparent when we reconnect with our American friends and other native speakers, and find ourselves mid-way between the halted English and a fluent rhythm.
The second feature is something that is a more culture-specific adaptation. In Azerbaijani, it’s common to ask “how are you?” upon greeting anyone. This is almost entirely the focus of the first minute of any given conversation. The response could be something along the lines of “I’m well, thanks.” Or you might just get “sağ ol”, along the lines of thank you in English. This is fine in Azerbaijani. Yet, when you say it in English, it just sounds weird:
A: How are you?
B: Thanks, and how are you?
See? The question wasn’t answered. And you’re just sort of left with this weird feeling that your attempt at a real conversation didn’t actually work, quite unsatisfying. But this is exactly what you might get when you speak to an Azerbaijani who speaks English. It’s not really a problem, it’s just that they’ve taken their standard greetings and translated them verbatim and that doesn’t always work so well. It works in the local language, but translating it doesn’t convey the right message. The real problem, however, is when I actually start responding by using only “thank you” and forget that in English we expect you to answer the question, not just say thanks.
I’m sure there are other examples of this, but the end result is that it really toys with our notions of “proper” language. Should we be conforming to proper English at all times, telling every Azerbaijani here that they’re response doesn’t make sense? Or should we be content with knowing that we can communicate at all, conveying the right ideas?