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Columns Out of My Head

English proficiency might not be enough

June 24th, 2013 9:31 am by Jan Hearne

English proficiency might not be enough

One of the greatest accomplishments of my life has been learning to speak English fluently.
According to my baby book, I began with “da da.” From there I went on to learn the names of thousands of things, including water, bottle, puppy, kitten and Coke.
In the early days, I mimicked my parents’ very Southern accents. Butterfly was pronounced buttah-fly. Caterpillar was cattah-pilla.
The nuns at my elementary school got to work on my accent, rubbing out parental influences. What they didn’t undo, television took care of. I do have a Southern accent, but it’s not as strong as it would have been without intervention.
Not only do I speak English fluently, but I can also read and write English.
Throughout my school years, I scored well in the vocabulary and comprehension sections of standardized tests, which made up for my dismal scores in math and science. I am not fluent in math. On a scale of one to 10, my math fluency is perhaps a 3 — if by math you do not mean geometry. In geometry, I am a -5.
Math is a universal language. English is another matter altogether. It is a wonder how anyone learns, much less masters, English if it is their second language.
How does one sort through the endless homophones? Words that sound alike but have different meanings include ail, ale; lead, led; spade, spayed; sale, sail. And there are homographs (words that are spelled alike but pronounced differently): wound, object, present, bass, close, desert are just a few.

Our sense of humor is another thing.
A guitarist whose native language was Spanish told me he knew he was becoming fluent in English when he started to get our jokes. “Take my wife — please,” is meaningless to someone just learning the language. My parents and their friends made sure I mastered jokes; my sisters taught me irony.
English is said to be the most difficult language to learn. It’s not, but it’s in the top 10. I have tried to learn French. I know some words and how to construct basic sentences, but I would be lost in a French-speaking country.
A friend of mine was born in Cuba to German parents. She was fluent in both Spanish and German when her family was forced to leave after Castro’s takeover.
She started at an American high school not knowing the language, and though she is a very bright person, she failed every subject the first six weeks.
She speaks English fluently now but has not lost her proficiency in Spanish and German.
I asked her once if she thought in English. “It depends on what I’m thinking about,” she said. “If I’m thinking about music, I think in German.” For the first time I realized English wasn’t enough.
Perhaps in the day-to-day world it is, but when one speaks of love or music, art or philosophy, our lovely language only scratches the surface. I shouldn’t have stopped at one language.

Jan Hearne is the Press  Tempo editor. Reach her at

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