Sorry of my English….
So begins A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, the 2007 novel by UK-based Chinese novelist Xiaolu Guo. The opening line clearly sets the tone for the rest of the book: a first person account of Zhuang, a young Chinese woman who comes to London to learn English and falls in love with an Englishman almost twice her age. Set over a period of 12 months, it tells the story of Zhuang’s love affair and her resultant journey into adulthood, foregrounded against her struggle to learn English and adapt to an entirely new culture.
What is most striking about Guo’s novel is that it is written in deliberately imperfect English. Critically, as the story progresses, the language (especially the syntax and morphology) becomes more complex and more accurate.
Early on, for example, Zhuang’s English is far from proficient. It is marked by a lack of verb conjugation and very simplified negation (“I no speaking English. I fearing future”), and she frequently drops the copula entirely (“But I at neither time zone. I on airplane”).
However, by the end of the novel, Zhuang’s deviations from Standard English are far more subtle. She still commonly drops articles (“We wake up to noises from neighbours’ kitchen”), for example, or adds them where they wouldn’t normally appear (“We walk in the Victoria Park”) – which is perhaps not surprising since her native Mandarin functions perfectly well without them. And she makes the sort of mistakes that we all make when we learn our first language by logically and creatively applying rules (“Every night I inhale and outhale your breath”) where real language happens to be less than logical. But such errors are much less frequent than at the start of the novel.
It’s a neat literary device. As well as reinforcing the cultural distance between Zhuang and her adopted home (where a sense of “foreign” acts in both directions), the changing English acts as a metaphor for Zhuang’s irreversible personal journey. Moreover, it helps the reader – especially if they themself have wrestled to learn a foreign language – sympathise with the protagonist.
What we commonly might call “bad” English or “pidgin” Frenhc, or “foreigner talk”, linguists refer to in less value-laden terms as “interlanguage”. Interlanguage is the linguistic system that a learner of a second language will develop on their way to full proficiency. The term is used in recognition the fact that a learner’s language will be rule-based, even if those rules are “wrong”, or at least not the same as those used by native speakers.
Critically, interlanguage will generally preserve some grammatical features of the leaner’s first language (like Zhuang’s omission of articles) as well as overgeneralisations of certain rules from the language they are learning (as in Zhuang’s “outhale”). And although it will change over time as the learner approaches more native proficiency, interlanguage can also stop developing or “fossilize”. As a result, any interlanguage will be entirely unique to the learner and potentially therefore – as in some more famous cases – instantly recognisable.
But can a learner’s interlanguage be art? Can it be poetry? Can interlanguage make for great literature?
Interlanguage is certainly common enough in fiction as reported speech. Sometimes such language can be lazy, stereotypical or even racist, which is arguably the case for Daniel Defoe’s “savage”, Friday, in Robinson Crusoe (“Yes, my nation eats mans too, eat all up”). But interlanguage can also be used more elegantly and more sensitively. In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for example, a conversation in a local cantina ominously renders the chaos of the linguistically contested US-Mexican borderlands:
Blood, he said. This country is give much blood. This Mexico. This is a thirsty country. The blood of a thousand Christs. Nothing.
And you can find interlanguage in poetry too. “Bad English” by Chinese-Australian poet Ouyang Yu tells of an English teacher living in China about to retire to his native Australia, wistfully reminiscing about his many students. In the last three stanzas, interlanguage features as reported speech for comic effect, but is also affectionately (we hope) mimicked by the teacher:
So, in his last class, he found time to speak
Their language: I felt exciting at the thought
Of returning to Oz as living here I often feel boring
I objected myself speaking such bad English
Although I do care you and I admire you
For things like this: ‘On that day’s noon’
And your brilliant slips of pen, like this:
‘We must all uphold human tights’
Although Guo might not be known as a “great” novelist, she’s already done enough with language to be named one of Britain’s Best Young Novelists by Granta magazine. And in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, she certainly makes interlanguage an art form.
Within the broad framework of Zhuang’s evolving English, which as I mention above works as a metaphor in itself, there are some great poetic touches. Towards the end of the novel, for example, Zhuang has taken a trip to France. She is sitting in a café when a waiter comes to offer her “du pain”.
‘Non. Je ne veux pas pain! I answer. I learn this from French For Beginners by Michael Thomas.
But one minute later, he comes back with a small basket of pain again, asks me:
‘Encore un peu de pain?’
‘Ca sufficient! I say, wiping my mouth, stand up.
No more pain in my life.
Only rice makes me happy.
In this brief passage, Guo plays with words in two languages – via a language learner’s “false-friend” (French “pain” meaning bread and the English word “pain”) – to beautifully convey Zhuang’s longing for home.
It’s obviously risky to write a whole novel or poem in interlanguage, and not everyone will feel comfortable playing poetically with a language which is not their own. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that interlanguage poetry and literature is not more common. But perhaps that’s a shame. Many teachers know that writing, and not just reading, poetry can really help learners to master a second language.
And, as Guo shows, interlanguage really can make for a good book. Even if it does need prefacing with an apology.