Listening to the Arctic Monkeys song Mardy Bum this morning got me thinking about the language I use and how it has changed over the years of living abroad and teaching. The song suddenly reminded me that “mardy” was a word frequently heard in my house when I was growing up, and used by all, including me. It’s a word used a lot in the Midlands and the North in general. But I realised at the same time that I couldn’t remember the last time I had used it myself and I wondered why this was.
I’ve long understood that living and teaching abroad has a sort of fossilising effect on your own native language. It’s only natural that without regular exposure to contemporary English, your native language will gradually fall out of date. I often find that when I go back to England I hear new colloquialisms and slang, new ways of using the language, that I am unfamiliar with, to the extent that I sometimes have to check the meaning. Another factor is the teaching aspect; constantly having to regulate and monitor every sentence coming out of your mouth inevitably “flattens” your own language. You have to be very careful about which colloquialisms and idioms you use, use them judiciously and sparingly, and be wary of using words which would be considered dialect. For example, growing up in Coventry, I called the passageway between two streets an “entry”, but I can’t teach this as it would be next to useless for a learner of English as a foreign language; instead I have to use and teach the more universally used and recognised “alley”. This constant monitoring slowly but inexorably erodes the language you use, a language that has developed over many years, and which is a wonderful stew combining, amongst other things, your own individual view of the world, the influence of the people you have known, and the imprint of the place you grew up. It makes me sad to think I am losing this aspect of myself.
The challenge, obviously, is in trying to keep your language up to date; something I find extremely difficult. The contact I have with contemporary English is extremely limited and, apart from the few English speakers I know here, mostly consists of what I read online, along with a few TV programmes and films. But for me, the biggest challenge of all is in trying to speak as an individual, with my own quirks and patterns of speech, a way of using language which should be unique to me, instead of the anodyne, one-size-fits-all version I find myself using lately. An English that can be universally understood is also an English with no interesting or distinctive features, and on a personal level I find that rather depressing.