There’s something you’ve been learning since birth. Even before birth. You’ve been learning the language of your mother. Your father. The people around you. And you’ve grown into that language. And guess what, that makes you an expert. Most experts only have to study like 8 years to be considered an expert, and you’ve definitely been studying your mother language for more than 8 years. Unless you’re Deaf.
I often get told, “I’m not even good at English,” when I tell people that I study the world’s languages and how they work. Or, “Don’t study my English.” You have a lifetime of knowledge, and you don’t think that matters. It does! You’re an expert! You can create new words in the rules that bind English. You know when something sounds wrong. And you knew it when you were a kid. Three-year-olds can question a person’s pronunciation. My 5-year-old nephew is constantly amazing me with his English skills. He’s never gone to school to study English.
You are an expert.
It’s true that you might not talk like a President you respect. You probably definitely don’t talk like your English teacher… unless you are an English teacher. And you probably fumble your words sometimes. Still an expert. You probably sound like your friends. You probably have no problem communicating with someone you see every day. (Well, as far as your word choice. Communication and understanding are still very hard.) And, you could meet someone you’ve never met before that’s “not from ’round here,” and still communicate. Because you’re an expert.
If I were coming to your town to do a survey, I’d want to talk to someone just like you. Someone who learned their language from birth, who isn’t hoity-toity, and who talks with people who use the same language. Because that’s the group of people that are the experts.
But, I work with a language group that doesn’t get their language from their parents – most of the time. I work with a language group that has to go outside of the home to learn any words. They have to leave their house to actually understand someone. They have to leave their neighborhood to have something in common with someone else. (That is until they get a home of their own and get to choose the language used there.) But a group of people who didn’t start learning language before they were born doesn’t always result in experts. I’ve met a Deaf person who didn’t start learning language until “a year ago” and he was 50! I couldn’t ask him his sign for “island.” He didn’t have one.
Survey work is hard. And not just because of the travelling and linguistics and scheduling and word lists. It’s hard because I meet people who aren’t fluent in their only language. I meet people who don’t have a relationship with their parents because they can’t communicate. I meet people who don’t know words like “forgiveness,” “Jesus,” and “island” (even though they lived on an island!)
I’m thankful for my expertise in my mother tongue, and I hope you’ve gained a new respect for yours.
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