Language is Complex and Foldable.


“Excuse me.”


“You can’t walk in the hallways and talk on your cell phone.”

I froze. I was caught. First goddamn day of high school, no less.

“Do you speak English?”

What I wanted to say back:

What I ended up saying was:

“Whaa? Yeah.”

A canned warning about following school policy was reiterated to me and I walked to my next class. A foreign language class.


I often wondered if I spoke English correctly, especially in high school. I can hear you asking “But Max, English is your first language, you didn’t have to be so nervous.”

Yeah, that is true, but I was a shy kid who had to go to high school. I reasoned they don’t call it high school without a decent reason. One of the first definitions of high I saw in the dictionary was:

4. Exceeding the common degree or measure; strong; intense: high speed; high color. 

Well shit. That couldn’t be easy. I was fourteen and dumb.

I wondered if anyone would be able to hear me. If anyone would be able to understand what I was saying. Is language a static entity, that everyone should know? Was my understanding of language fundamentally different just because I was an ignorant teenager about to enter “high” school?

Well, no.

Let us flash forward to 2014.

Peter Elbow’s article “Vernacular Literacy” inspired that particular anecdote. It raised fascinating questions about what language means to me. One quote raised my eyebrow:

By around the age of four, every human child who isn’t brain damaged or left in the woods to be raised by wolves, has mastered the essential structure of a native language (or two). Every human who learns a language from infancy possesses a rich , complex, intricate, and rule-governed language. (2-3)

What Elbow is saying is that language is complex. Learning language is complex and from his wording, it is a very human thing to do. There are specific methods of language that only people can use. Because as far as I know, a wolf has never written down his thoughts into a Shakespearean sonnet.

Fourteen-year-old me would not have felt so bad if he read this. Did I learn the necessities for language before I could spell Massachusetts? I take it to mean that the simplest things we take for granted in language is actually quite complex. At least the process of acquiring the ability to use language is so complicated that most technologies can’t understand language like a normal person can. All anyone has to do is try any direct language translation site to see the fallibility of technology when it comes to language.

For example, I typed into babelfish “大きなチーズが好きです。,” which is “I like big cheese.” What I got back was “Big cheese is like.” I know that Japanese and English are inherently very different languages, but this is what makes the human brain remarkable, and proves that technology is not quite there yet when it comes to language translation. Have fun.

The human process of acquiring languages is so amazing that we break off our languages in a variety of ways. In fact, the newer the language variant, it is usually deemed in some way wrong or an incorrect way of communicating. It is usually called”primitive, or broken, or mere slang (e.g. AAE, Spanglish, Hawai’ian ‘pidgin’ — more accurately named Hawai’ian Creole English). (3)”

It is incredible to realize I and many other people think this way. I hear something that sounds like it is English, but does not fit my criteria exactly, so it must be pointless newly created slang that isn’t intended for my ears. It really made me consider the power of language, because I realized I didn’t really know it myself. Elbow succinctly pointed out:

People in our culture will continue to confuse writing in different and spoken dialects with bad writing. (25)

Different dialects and terms for things do not necessarily mean that it is inherently bad or wrong. My North American English is no more “right” than where the majority of English speakers lie, which according to Elbow is in “Africa and Asia. (21)”

Essentially, what Elbow has been saying is that the human brain’s capacity to learn languages is incredible. It is also a reason why there are so many spoken and written languages and numerous variants. Our very own language processes have made language a malleable means of communication. It can be molded to fit the cultural and possible technological circumstances.

Remember this from Elbow:

Humans have perennially had a tendency to laugh or look askance at people who speak differently. (17)

When someone asks you if you speak English, you can use this quote and say

Trust me. You’ll feel better.

One Question to Ponder:

Do you believe that language is so complex and changing, there can never be a “proper” way of speaking?