Is English the Author’s Native Language?

Comment: Reading Cold Morning Shadow made me wonder whether the author’s first language is something other than English.  It doesn’t sound as though it was translated from something else, and it doesn’t sound British.  It just seems more formal than most American books I’ve read.  -K.B.

Answer: American English is my first language.

My Parents

My mother was born in Ohio in the 1920s and, other than hearing some Pennsylvania Dutch spoken in the family during her childhood, she grew up speaking the English of her Midwestern parents.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in education in the 1940s and was a schoolteacher by the time I was born.  She continued teaching school all through the time I was growing up (as the oldest of six children).

My father, raised in Maine, lost his eardrums and inner ear structures to childhood infections.  He was totally deaf by the time he reached puberty.  From my earliest memories of him — he was 23 when I was born — he was bald, had a full set of false teeth top and bottom, and wore a metal band across his head connected to a bone-conducting hearing aid.

Dad’s pronunciation was actually fine.  He had comical ways of repeating what he thought he heard when someone spoke to him.  What he assumed he heard was often wrong.  Mom and all of his children needed to correct him constantly.  I recall many times being on the sidelines of a conversation and, when he wasn’t sure what had been said — he would stare at me with a look that pleaded for a repeat or interpretation.

It took my dad eleven years, from the time I was five years old until I was 16, to earn a college degree while also adding all those kids to the family and working two jobs at a time.  In the end, he too became a school teacher.

Good Teachers

I was a “good” student throughout my 13 years of public school, kindergarten through twelfth grade.  I was strong in English, especially from about eighth grade onward.  By the time I finished high school I had sat through two years each of Spanish, Latin, and French.  I liked English assignments that called for telling a story, but when I later looked back on those compositions I cringed and destroyed the few pieces I had kept.  Teachers complimented several of my compositions, though, and my junior-year English teacher, Jean Rhodenizer, once told my mother that she didn’t feel qualified to evaluate my writing.

In my first year of college I added a year of Russian to my language inventory.  With no way to pay for a second year of college I enlisted for four years in the Army during the Vietnam non-war, further impelled by the Army’s offer of a year of intensive Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.  There, for almost twelve month, I was privileged to study under the close attention of several native-born Russians.

One character in Cold Morning Shadow gets a perfect score on the Army Language Aptitude Test, (the ALAT), upon initially enlisting in the Army (Chapter 30). It’s fiction in the book, but it’s just what happened to me. The multi-year study of three foreign languages in grade school, the immersion in Russian that followed, the experience of living in Germany for a year and a half, even though I didn’t take classes in German, and my frequent travel in Italy and France during that period, left me undaunted, if not conversant, in seven different languages and high-functioning if not nearly fluent in two beyond English.

I have waded ankle-deep into ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Mandarin since then — altogether ten languages using five different alphabets or writing systems.  On top of all this, I’ve taken a couple levels of training in American Sign Language, which has yet another structure for communicating.

(Ultimately, on the journey of a lifetime, I spent two weeks on a solo trip through Russia and Ukraine in the mid-1990s. I would arrive in a town, locate a hotel, and check in before touring the area. Desk clerks would ask: Where is your tour guide? Where is your group? Where is your bus? I’d answer that I’m traveling solo. The next thing each one invariably said was: You are!? in a tone that conveyed: Are you crazy? Then they would say: Be careful! But I emerged from behind the Iron Curtain unscathed.)

That trip, especially the swing through Ukraine, gave me some much-needed reassurance before publishing Fire, Wind & Yesterday.

Bell and ASL

My father didn’t use ASL, as anyone would understand who has learned of the darker side of Alexander Graham Bell.  While it’s true that Bell’s mother, Eliza, was deaf and that, when he was in his late 20s, he married a woman, Mabel Hubbard, who had lost her hearing to scarlet fever as a child, and while it’s true that his invention of the telephone was a product of his experiments with acoustics on behalf of his wife and his concomitant quest to improve the telegraph so that it could transmit sounds, and even though Bell founded the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf in 1890, (now known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf), Bell opposed permitting deaf people to marry one another, fearing an unsustainable growth in the deaf population and the demand for a deaf state — a country-within-a-country.

He believed that deafness was a curse upon those afflicted and a burden to any deaf individual, and that deafness could be reduced in the population as a whole by interfering with deaf couples’ freedom to procreate.  He wanted to prevent the birth of deaf children.  To quote from this site, he wanted “to eliminate residential schools, prohibit sign language use in deaf education, and forbid deaf teachers from teaching deaf students.  Bell thought these measures would encourage deaf people to use their oral skills and become more integrated into the hearing society.  These measures could be ‘hidden’ and seen as education reforms.”

Since Alexander Graham Bell had a powerful influence on pedagogy in the United States, it took decades after his death in 1922 for education policy to catch up to today’s reality.  From this site: “The trend toward dedicated, residential education for deaf children has been replaced by a trend to integrate deaf children into local public schools. This movement became predominant after the passage of the All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (today called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).”

Thus Bell has had his way, after a fashion: Deaf children are now taught more in an integrated school setting. But he has lost in another way: American Sign Language has become a universally-accepted and widely-taught visual supplement to oral communication.

In other words, my father, born in the 1920s, grew up during a period when A.G. Bell’s prejudice against sign language still heavily influenced the education of the deaf.  In a remarkable coincidence, he grew up in one of the three New England villages where sign languages in America originated in the early 1800s, in my dad’s home region around Farmington, Maine.  But that was a century before he was born and it had died out, largely due to the inventor of the telephone in 1876.

Dealing With It All

Dad’s family was also slow to acknowledge his disability, and he had already learned to speak normally before he lost his hearing.  In order to function among most other people, who did not use sign language, he was better off relying on speech and making the best of early hearing aids.

Deafness had its stigma when he was growing up, and that lingered well into his early adulthood.  American Sign Language was not widely encouraged among the deaf and their supporters and family members until well into my own adulthood.

My Expertise

None of this makes me an expert on any language but my own.  I paid attention in school, diagraming sentences and learning the parts of speech as I was simultaneously learning conjugation of verbs, declension of nouns, gender and person of pronouns, and the comparable structures in other languages.

Somewhere in my high school education I realized that I was being taught to write according to Strunk and White, the authors of The Elements of Style.  These were the rules that guided my teachers and which are better than mere rules; they also make sense.

I have consulted The Chicago Manual of Style and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and have drawn two conclusions, neither of which may be correct but are logically drawn: These guidebooks were initially written for people who composed newspaper reports which were not meant to be enduring examples of prose, and the authors of those manuals were trying to show reporters how to infuse urgency into reporting that was also marked by brevity and even uncertainty.  It was and still is, I suppose, fundamental that a piece of news, however incomplete, be published immediately and that readers be diverted from noticing and inquiring into any incompleteness of information.

I write stories, mostly, not news reports.  I want my words and, as vitally, my punctuation, to leave no doubt what I was trying to convey.  For more on the rules I have imposed upon myself see my article on Discipline in Writing.