Monday, 20 February 2012

When Did You Learn English?

Once upon a time a linguist conducted an experiment. She asked volunteers to come forward to take a quiz. I wanted to volunteer. There was a form to be filled before you could volunteer for the experiment. Since the experiment (as well as the quiz) was related to English language, there was a question in the form where I got stuck. Due to that very question, I was not able to proceed with the form and hence with the quiz; therefore my urge to volunteer for this language experiment remained only an urge. Its remnants still haunt me in my lucid nightmares, but with the hope that I would get another opportunity someday, I carry on.

The question was: “When did you learn English?"

Since I was a non-native English speaker volunteering for the experiment, this question was asked. May be I don't remember very vividly and the question was common for native as well as non-native speakers of English. "What was so difficult in answering this question?" you may ask. Yes, it might seem an easy question, but for me it was as equivocal a question as equivocality permits any question to be!

Interpretation 1. When did you finish elementary Grammar of English?

Interpretation 2. When did you learn to speak fluently?

Interpretation 3. When did you master English as a foreign language?

[This might mean: When did you clear an examination like TOEFL or IELS]

You might add any number of interpretations to this.

The amazing thing about the quiz was: It was for general public and not designed for linguists or masters of English prose. That made it difficult for me to interpret the question correctly. When I posted my query to the forum where discussion related to this quiz was being done, my question was deleted without any dignified answer. I did not and could not mind that, but question remained a question.

What do you mean when you say "When did you learn English?"

What do you mean when you ask such a question about any language?

In my opinion, you might learn a language for a range of applications, like asking for directions when roaming in a foreign country, or for passing an examination, or for writing a paper; but is there anything like learning a language completely? Can you say that someone who has written a number of books, or given a lot of discourses in a language has learned the language?

When I posed this question to one of my friends, after having narrated the scenario: He answered-"It was simple, you could have told the answer of "When were you introduced to the basics of English?""

"But that was not the question. Moreover, I learned basics of English in many classes, over the course of many years during my school." I said.

"Then, you might have told them about the time when you were introduced to the alphabets." He said.

"That also does not answer the question, in my humble opinion." I said.

"Hmm, it seems that you can never learn a language completely." He said.