The English language has been a passion of mine from a very young age. As a kid, I was an avid reader and writer, and this echoes throughout my life. Despite this, in the early years of high school in Australia, I struggled to understand what teachers were expecting from me, and it took me until senior high to get the knack of text analysis and argumentative writing – or, more to the point, of writing what my teachers and later lecturers wanted to read. But even after gaining a degree in English literature and starting out as a professional writer, I always had the feeling that I didn’t really understand the English language. I could express myself in it, I could write persuasive and engaging texts, I could earn a living from it – but I didn’t know how to deal with feedback from professors or editors when it came to correcting my grammar or changing my phrasing.
So, when I got the chance to move to Germany and become an English teacher in adult education, I jumped at the chance to immerse myself in grammar, to try to wrap my head around how this language works. I consumed the students’ grammar books (in those days, there wasn’t as much available online as there is today) and course books. I hoarded practice exams for my students’ English language exams, and did them over a morning coffee, as others might do a crossword or a sudoku. Again, my curiosity here was how to meet the examiner’s expectations – what is the examiner looking for when they set certain tasks, when they phrase their questions? And how will they assess the success of the exam taken?
But rather than quench my thirst to understand English, this just led me to ask more questions. At this time, I was working on my German and learning French, and I found the similarities and differences between the three languages enlightening. The more German I learned, the more it informed my knowledge of English – of what one can and can’t do with each language. The more time I spent diagnosing the mistakes my students were making in English, the more sophisticated my knowledge of German grammar became. And so it was that I began, more than a decade after finishing my Literature degree, studying General Linguistics and Historical Comparative Linguistics – which took me into far-flung languages, exposed me to odd-ball grammatical structures like nothing I’d ever seen, and taught me about language evolution and language processing on a cognitive level. Boy, did I learn a bit about grammar!
By then end of my linguistics degree, I had developed a very keen understanding of how the English language works, and have spent the intervening years working with students on developing their skills as competent language users. I’ve also come full circle myself, working again as a professional writer and translator, and now being the one providing editorial feedback on the fruits of others’ labours. But not a week goes by in which either a text I’m working on or a student I’m working with poses some kind of conundrum – a “why is it so?” or a “what does this mean?” – something which makes me pause for thought and wonder about it myself.
Sometimes there are answers that can be found in books or on the Internet, and some need to be dreamt up, hypothesised about and tested. But the most important thing is to ask the question in the first place, to be curious to learn more. Because there’s no end to what you can learn. Learning a language – even your mother tongue – is a life-long endeavour. And it’s never too late to start exploring.