Knowing of my life-long challenges in using a foreign language, I’m very sympathetic to non-natives trying to learn the idiosyncratic English language. Throughout middle and high school, I struggled with Spanish classes. * During my sabbatical, cab drivers in Rome would laugh whenever I tried to use Italian to give the location of the American Academy.
Learning different languages is one way of showing respect for others and widening our perspectives. However, I am the first to recognize that I don’t have an ear for foreign languages. It isn’t something I’m proud to admit.
This tin ear syndrome had me worried, as I have travels upcoming for National Trust Tours to Scotland (English speaking, but with that often-undecipherable Scottish brogue) and Norway (the name of the National Trust there is Fortidsminneforeningen, for goodness sake!), along with a personal trip to France (my friend Janet Hulstrand tells me to just say bonjour).
Another friend, who was born in Union City, Tennessee, has traveled the world as a beloved educational expert with tour groups but still lives in her hometown. When I told her of my fears, she had the perfect remedy.
“David, just tell them you’re from Tennessee,” Grace suggested, “and that we’re not allowed to say foreign names.”
Hey, works for me. And it has the added advantage that it is entirely believable.
The topic of learning English came up around the dinner table with Andrew the other night when we were discussing the correct order that adjectives have to be put in front of nouns in English. Adjectives, writes Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase,
“absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”
We tried a few phrases at dinner, and yes, it does work most of the time. Another writer notes that the data from tests suggests that, in fact, the conventional order is followed 78 percent of the time. So, it is natural to say that you’ve adopted a “cute little black puppy” but not a “black little cute puppy”. However, the rule isn’t hard and fast. “Big bad wolf” places the opinion adjective after the size.
I don’t know about you, but I never heard this rule taught in school. My children — who have had exceptional educations in grammar through the years — were never taught this rule. Candice, a teacher, never heard it while she was growing up.
The point is, there are some things as native speakers we just know, but we don’t know that we know them. Such as the correct order for adjectives.
I got to thinking about this “what we know but don’t know that we know” situation in relation to other parts of our lives. Like in leadership positions at work. There were times in my career when I was frustrated because someone else on the team didn’t seem to know how to respond to a situation. Something that, in my mind, was perfectly obvious. But on reflection, I’ve seen that a great deal of what I learned that shaped my references around how to work effectively came from being exposed, beginning at an early age, to that world. I saw how other people (usually white men) reacted and dealt with opportunities and challenges.
It didn’t occur to me until later that perhaps others who did not have that same privilege — because of their gender, race, or country of birth — didn’t “know” the same things I took for granted. And of course, just like with the “correct order of adjectives before a noun” rule, a good many of the things I “knew” to be so in my bones could be handled differently and just as effectively.
Part of this has to do with strengths, as I mentioned in a 2020 post. Business consultant Robert Glazer explained his past frustration in coming away from situations where he was asked to step in to meet a challenge and quickly helped solve the problem. Why couldn’t the others see what he saw so easily? His perspective on this changed permanently, he writes,
“…after I heard a speaker share a crucial insight on the topic….“What’s easy for you is often hard for someone else.” She explicitly pointed out that we frequently assume, often wrongly, that something that is easy for us should be just as easy for everyone else.”
There are so many things we “know but don’t know that we know” because of our cultural background and our personal strengths. The next time the thought comes into my mind that someone should just “know” how something is done, I’m going to stop and remember the words of the great Satchel Paige, “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so.” **
We could all benefit by taking it easier on ourselves and especially on our fellow travelers along life’s highway. So, lighten up!
More to come…
*I thought I remembered the correct Spanish phrase to use for directions to the library, until my kids told me one day that I had it totally wrong. And it really didn’t matter, because if a Spanish speaker had responded to my question, I would not have understood a word they said.
**The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, with this adaptation by the great Negro Leagues pitcher.