By Emma Pfanner
Before I go on to learn any other language, I intend to master my mother tongue. It should be pretty easy. I’ve been immersed in it for a couple decades, so I should be pretty close to fluent by now. Barbra Johnstone, a prominent discourse analysist describes knowing a language as knowing how to identify the implications behind the literal meaning of a speech act. Easy. I could do it in my sleep (But not literally. See? I’m already pretty good at it.)
But a little while ago I had a bit of an eye opener as to how much more work I’ll have to put in to this English business before I’m fluent. I was visiting a friend and she asked me if I would like a piece of a pie that she had just finished baking. I responded, “Is the pope Catholic?” She gave me a confused look and said, “Yes…Would you like a piece of pie?” Not only is she a California-born monolingual English speaker, we’d also gone to Catholic school together for nine years, so she couldn’t have thought it was a legitimate source of confusion for me. Always willing to help a fellow student of the English language, I explained the expression to her. “It’s a way of saying that the answer to the question is a gibbon. You know, like ‘That’s a gibbon.’” “A gibbon?” you ask. Yes, a gibbon. That’s how I said, wrote, and heard the phrase “That’s a given,” before I saw it written down. To be fair, in that case I did understand the non-literal translation of the phrase, I just didn’t know what gibbons had to do with it.
So I guess I’ll just knuckle down and study harder, this language thing seems pretty difficult.