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“See you again,” said the merchant of a store in Kunsan City, Republic of Korea, as I was leaving his business. Apparently, he was saying goodbye, but I didn’t know that at the time. “Maybe,” I said, “or maybe not,” and walked out. It was 1994, and I was starting a one year tour of duty in South Korea, where I also took a part time job teaching English to classes of Korean adults and children. It was an amazing year as I came to appreciate their culture and their devotion to education in general. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so many of the people I met in that part of the world wanted desperately to master the English language.
I particularly missed my old students while at a truck stop in Tuscaloosa, AL, yesterday. Three young ladies were standing behind the cash register. I think they were being paid to talk amongst themselves, because they paid precious little attention to the customers who were trying to make purchases. I waited in line until it was my turn to stand next to the counter and listen to them for awhile. From the front of the line, I could see that two of the young women were listening intently to the third, nodding their heads in unison as she explained the following story: “I was down wit ma home boy, and he was like pphhhhttttttt. And I was like, for real? And he was like, I dunno. And I was like, na-unnh.” And then, fearing that rigor-mortis would soon set in, the young lady accepted payment for my coffee so that I could like, leave and the next person in line could like, listen to this captivating tale of like, utter incoherence.
I wish I could say that my experience was unusual. For that matter, I wish I could say it was nonexistent. But it seems all too common, and it does not prefer one region over another. Ignorance has more than one accent, and comes from all walks of life. Several years ago, my son and I watched two people at a fast food restaurant try to conduct a transaction; one person placing an order, the other person taking the order. Neither one could understand the other. “Wutchoo wont?” asked the first person, to which the second answered, “huh?” And on it went for several minutes. They needed an interpreter, and I needed a sedative. Last month, I spent a full hour at a security office while the guards, Beavis and Butthead, tried to coach each other on how to accomplish the paperwork necessary for me to pick up a loaded trailer and depart with it. The challenges of the job and of communicating in a common language were just too much for them.
The blame can be placed in a variety of places. Government schools, the dumbing down of the larger culture, parental abdication of teaching in favor of the television, etc. I personally think there is a fashion component at work as well, inasmuch as there seems to be a correlation between the angle of a baseball cap and the ability of the wearer to complete a sentence. Ditto with the droopiness of pants.
The question is, what can be done about this, if anything? Can this slide into gibberish, mumbling, slurring, nonsensical prattle be arrested, let alone reversed? It’s reached a point where significant segments of society are walking around in such a communicative stupor, that they are barely even functional. Oh yes, …and they vote. Ideas anyone?