‘I’m just gonna hop in the shower,’ a friend said, and I have often said the same myself.

But think about it: why do people always HOP into the shower? Has any one of them – even one – ever actually hopped into the shower? (Or, for that matter, started hopping when they got really mad?) Hopping is just not something one does after early childhood, unless one has stepped on a tack, and then only long enough to get to a chair.

‘I’m just going to hop on down to the store and pick up some bagels.’

Oh, sure you are. I’d love to see it. Could the Early Man who came up with this word, hopping around his cave after stubbing his toe, ever have imagined showers or stores? Or that hopping down to the latter would mean walking over to a shiny 3,000-pound cave on wheels (wheels I think they invented right around the time they came up with the word ‘hop’), stick a small shiv into a slit, turn a wrist, and summon 160 horses? This is hopping?

To hop has come simply to mean, ‘to go, impulsively, casually.’ One never hops to do something important – unless one ‘hops to it!,’ which is almost the opposite of doing it casually – and you and I, being native English speakers (well, most of you), just know all this stuff intuitively.

Imagine having to learn English as a second language starting at 14, let alone 40. It would be all but hopless.

This brings to mind four things.

First, obviously, how fortunate we are (again, most of us) to know the Internet’s primary language with no effort at all.

Second, how extraordinary are our friends (like the designer of this web site, among so many others) who have met the challenge of learning English as a second language.

Third, how difficult it must be for the young man who has been assigned to translate the new edition of my book into Japanese. He sends me the nicest e-mails asking questions that make me realize how impossible this must be. Starting with the dedication page: ‘To my broker, even if he has, from time to time, made me just that.’ How do you translate a pun? (My recommendation: just delete it; my broker will never know.) (And why on earth does the Japanese publisher think anyone there will want to know why the Roth IRA is a better choice than the traditional IRA?)

Fourth, what a smart idea it is to enroll the five and six-year-old children of immigrant parents into ‘English immersion’ programs when they start school, while they are still young enough to pick up the language with ease. The ‘bilingual’ classes many school districts have spent so much money on turn out to be – though well intentioned – basically school-in-Spanish. Which is fine if you’re a kid in Mexico or Chile, but a real disservice if you’re a kid in Los Angeles or Boston.

That last observation is controversial. Bilingual education is strongly supported by, among others, those employed in bilingual-education programs, many of whom work very hard trying to make the theory (which is a good one) reality (which after 30 years of trying seems rarely to happen). In California, virtually every politician in the state came out against a 1998 ballot initiative that would have ended most bilingual classes. Yet it passed overwhelmingly, and was even heavily supported by the Latino community until shortly before the vote, when massive opposition advertising flooded the Spanish-language media. (It was only after the election that the funder of the opposition was revealed: the owner of the Spanish-language Univision television network. Univision has a natural economic interest in having kids not learn English.)

Three years later, the California results are in, and they are good. Arizona has passed a similar initiative. Massachusetts is currently debating one.

It is a much larger topic than I have the space or competence to cover, but if you’re interested, hop over to englishforthechildren.org.

 

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