English, a beautiful art: An immigrant’s perspective

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By Tessa Sittrop

Each step was a step into the daunting unknown. A mixed smell of B.O, deodorant, aftershave, and sweat, lingered in the air-conditioned cabin of our Dutch KLM flight, destined for The Great Southland of Australia. ‘Ding!’ the sound of flight service messages, disgruntled passengers, crying children, bold sweaty old men, clasping of seatbelts, and a full set of nerves, signalled the beginning of a new life.

Twenty something years later it was clear that Australia’s national ‘English’ language, and I, were going to have a rocky relationship. As much as I loved the sound of it when I first heard it spoken to me, and therefore saw it as a wonderful language to communicate with, I found that it was an extremely difficult language to have full command of. Today however I have come to really appreciate this ‘new tongue’, and agree with English literature gurus that English just happens to be an amazing art.

I found there were many differences between life in Australia and life in the Netherlands, but the most impacting barrier to full cultural immersion was the intricate barrier of the English language. Intricate because you can communicate with the most simplest level of prose or the most complicated, simile or metaphor-filled, irony laced, and you name it – jargon, chatter or gabble. As I looked up the word ‘talk’ in the Thesaurus, there must have been over 500 words or short phrases you could use as a substitute for the word alone.

English would have to be one of the most logical, and yet abstract or creative languages around. Yes French is beautiful and romantic, and Aramaic historical and poetic, but English has the capacity to deliver like a sword, the most accurate articulation of thought. Ernest Hemingway, for example, wrote some of the most “sublime prose of the English language: short, sharp, piercing sentences that told stories about soldiers, lovers, hunters, bravery, fear and death”, as a commentator from National Public Radio (NPR) so perfectly put it.

English can also be extremely artistic. Remember those lovely Shakespearean sonnets or poetry by Jane Austin, Gwendolyn Brooks or T.S Elliot? They are pretty and flowery. Authors such as these are like painters sometimes painting different strokes of the same colour, yet giving a totally different perspective, or sense of texture. A string of words can be the most impacting piece of communication, lines can be abundantly colourful and constructed like beautiful architecture, and if the right words are placed in the right literary cocktail, it can become a masterpiece of literary imagination and artistry.

I think it took me about five years to feel confident in speaking conversational English, but it will take me another lifetime to fully grasp the myriad cultural jargon, metaphors, ironies, and euphemisms, not to mention the labyrinth of grammar rules, to fully capture the essence and skill of this art. Being able to communicate and express with accuracy and creative flair, is to me such a gift, and I believe almost cathartic – like finding the right vocal pitch and releasing a perfect glass-breaking sound, or as a friend reminiscently said: “a good bottle of Cristal Champaign”. All in all though, I am grateful for the learning, and look forward to continuing the journey of literary discovery.

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