Mostly German students at a school in Spain wrote me letters . . .

. . . about my poem “Totally Like Whatever,” which their teacher, Ms. R. had made them watch and discuss. These were handwritten letters (about 60 of them!) from 14 year olds for whom English is at least a second language! So of course I wrote back, and here’s what I said:

Dear students of Ms. R. in Madrid, Spain

Thank you for sending me your letters! I read them all, but I won’t respond to each of you individually. Instead my responses below are mostly general reactions to some of your most common concerns, comments, and questions. Then sometimes I get reminded of something that I think you should know. And occasionally, I will mention one of you by name, but usually when I AGREE or DISAGREE strongly.

  1. First of all, my poem is absolutely not intended to be an attack on those for whom English is a second or third language! Not at all. My complaint is with native English speakers. After all, if someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, and someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, then it follows logically that the word for someone who speaks only one language is . . . American. I am disgusted with my countrymen and their ignorant insistence on not learning any other languages, to say nothing of two other languages.
  2. There is one of my countrymen with whom I am more disgusted than any other, but don’t get me started.
  3. I speak some French with an accent that makes me sound as if I speak much more! I also speak some Spanish, probably better than French at this point. But my accent is not as good in Spanish. And I make hysterical mistakes all the time, for example, mixing up the words pagar and cagar (“Lo siento, pero ¿Puedo cagar en dólares? Es muy importante que se le permitiera cagar en dólares. Soy Americana.”)
  4. If I were a student today, I would study Chinese or Arabic.
  5. My friend’s girlfriend is from Romania, and she says funny things sometimes. For example, one time when she meant to say “I stopped dead in my tracks,” which is an expression in English that comes from hunting—imagine a deer suddenly freezing in place—she accidentally said, “I stopped dead in my pants!” We laughed so hard! She laughed so hard! We weren’t making fun of her, it was just funny! So, please rest assured that I have nothing but love for anyone who is struggling to learn English as a foreign language.
  6. BUT EVEN IF English is your second or third language, please don’t copy the sloppy speaking habits of native speakers just to fit in! You have already proven yourself to be better than that! So why not sound like it, too?
  7. Sofia asked whether I’d ever considered what people from 100 years ago would think about the way I speak. I have. I think about that all the time when I read the letters of the dead. How beautifully the wrote! And their handwriting is always so perfect! What would they think of me? I don’t know! But of course, in criticizing the speech of young people today, I am not speaking from the grave . . .yet. I am not 100 years older than you, more like 38 years older. As far as the oceans are concerned, we are both the same age.
  8. Please understand that when I wrote this poem 22 years ago, I was trying to criticize my generation of sloppy speakers! I thought that if I wrote a good enough poem I could make future generations speak with more authority than my own. Obviously, I failed. And now your generation thinks I am attacking them because I think my generation spoke better. Nope. If you feel attacked, it’s because you speak just like we did (and I was hoping you’d be better)!
  9. When speaking casually with friends, it doesn’t matter so much the words you choose to express yourself. Except: 1) Practice makes permanent! If you never practice speaking more artfully, then you won’t be able to when the situation calls for it. And 2) Sometimes even your friends start noticing that you say “like” a lot. Sometimes they start COUNTING the “likes” instead of listening to what you say.
  10. Many of you wrote that when you’re speaking with your friends, you don’t really care or notice what you say or how you sound. That’s sort of my point! I want you to notice! I’m not saying it’s easy. It takes effort.
  11. When I speak, I rarely use the filler words um, ah, er, and other “disfluencies” (disfluencias), but it takes a lot of effort. I might make it sound effortless—indeed that’s one of my goals!—but it’s a lot of work. However, it’s worth it because I always sound smarter than I actually am!
  12. Gabriel says using weak language is a type of defense mechanism. “So if you say something wrong, you can say that you weren’t really sure about it.” I think there’s a better strategy. Why not speak like you believe what you’re saying but admit the possibility that you could be wrong and you’re open to alternative points of view. I would rather do that than put my opinion out there in a way that makes it easy to take back later if I change my mind.
  13. For instance, I used to admire Kevin Spacey as an actor. But the facts seem to suggest he’s a predator with real problems so I’m in the process of changing my opinion of him. There’s no shame in changing your mind when presented with new evidence. It doesn’t make me wish I had been a little more vague in my admiration of him in the first place so that I could now say, “I only said I sort of liked him and thought he was kind of, like,
  14. It goes without saying that everyone has a right to speak however they want. Sure. But if you speak like an idiot, people will think you’re an idiot regardless of whether you actually are an idiot. Your rights to speak however you want don’t extend to controlling how others think of you. You want them to take you seriously and respect your ideas? Then learn to express yourself better. That’s not guaranteed to work, but it’s a start.
  15. If you want to speak English well, don’t try to sound like the native speakers who speak it sloppily. Learn some great vocabulary, words that will make even the native speakers say, “Wow! I’d forgotten about that word!” For example, I have a friend named Emil who was born in Tehran, Iran, grew up in Sweden and is now married and living in Spain. Although he still speaks a little Pharsi, I think his best language is Swedish. He also speaks very good English, and is now learning Spanish. We were talking once and he said he didn’t like to wear expensive wristwatches “because I consider them to be . . . I forget the word in English! What is the word for when someone is being flashy, or showy, or boastful?” I looked at him and finally said, “Do you mean ostentatious?” He did! WHAT?! HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT WORD?! “Well, I learned it, and I remember thinking it would be a useful word in the future.” Boom. That is what you want to be!
  16. Donald Trump is ostentatious. But he is many things even worse than that. In Spanish, it is In German, it would be ostentative. Perhaps the best word is liar. Don’t get me started.
  17. Gustavo asks why I used the line about the rain forest. He said it sticks out. The full line (for context) is:Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
    Have they been, like, chopped down with the rest of the rain forest?

    As you can see, both lines use tree imagery. The expression in English is “to walk out on a limb,” which means to really take a chance, to risk falling. I just stuck with the tree imagery. That said, recently I’ve caught myself thinking that I wish that part of the poem was better written.

  18. Many of you criticize me for generalizing. Okay, fair enough. But you sound like the men on social media who, when a woman writes a post about her experience with certain types of men, insist on posting “not ALL men!” Have you seen the hashtag #notallmen? If you don’t feel my poem applies to you, so be it. But if I’d written the PERFECT poem that argued the PERFECT points in ALL situations and applied to ALL speakers of ALL ages . . . you never would have read it because it would have SUCKED, and the world would long ago have forgotten about it (and rightfully so).
  19. Emilio, I like your handwriting! But probably because it’s the most like mine! You point out that halfway through the poem I start saying “we” when the poem starts with “you.” You suggest that this means I am willing to criticize myself as well. No one has ever pointed that out to me, but you are exactly right!
  20. Sofia writes “It’s weird to think someone is less intelligent just because they use bad speaking habits. Like the famous expression: You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” I disagree with your analogy. I wouldn’t ever think someone less intelligent by the way they look or the sound of their voice (like their accent). But listening to the words they choose to express themselves and judging them on that? I think that’s fair game. I think you are essentially saying: You shouldn’t judge a book by how well its written. Um, yes you should!
  21. I am reminded now of a guy I knew in high school named Bobby who had such a thick, heavy “Noo Yawk” accent (New York) that we all called him “Bawbee.” His parents were very poor, and they sounded exactly like him. But here’s the thing: Bobby was the best math student that the school had ever had! Several times I watched him raise his hand to correct the teacher or offer an alternative proof to a problem. Or else he would ask a particularly incisive question only to have the teacher blink back at him in stupefied wonder. He was, as he even admitted to himself, “wicked smaht.” But his accent made you not expect it! Teachers used to say, “I’m sorry, Bobby, I don’t think I understood what you just said, either because your accent is too heavy or else I am not smart enough to follow your thought process!” But guess what? Bobby never said um, ah, or er. Because he couldn’t afford to! “My thick accent already predisposes people to think I’m stupid. So I try hard not to give them any evidence to back up their erroneous opinion of me.”
  22. Many of you have said that you use filler words to insert a pause in your speech to give you time to think of the next word. I challenge you to fill that pause with . . . nothing. A moment of silence in the middle of a speech, or even the middle of a sentence can be . . . riveting. Apparently, there is something called the “Seven-Second Pause,” and great public speakers practice being able to pause that long. It is hard. If someone interrupts you in the middle of your pause, you can politely cut them off by saying, “Please don’t interrupt me.”
  23. There is one particular instance when using a disfluency like “um” or “ah” is acceptable to me (maybe. I’m still getting used to the idea) and it’s this: I’ve read that just before using a big vocabulary word, it’s actually a good idea to say um or ah as a kind of signal to your listeners that a big word is coming and they should get ready. It keeps them from bumping up against the word unexpectedly and saying, “Wait. What?” Here’s an example: “I get my best ideas while walking on the banks of rivers so that might account for the . . . ah . . . riparian nature of some of my poems.”
  24. Lastly, you never want to let the gap between how you speak and how you write get too big. At least, I don’t. It’s perfectly normal to be a little more proper in your writing than in your speech; it’s like your ideas are dressing up in their Sunday clothes. But if you speak in dirty sweat pants, it’s a little silly to write in elegant evening wear. Therefore, since I want my written voice to sound like my speaking voice, I work hard to elevate the way I speak rather than dumb down the way I write.

That’s more than enough, I think. But I could be wrong. Be kind to your teacher: She made all of this happen.

Metaphorically yours,

Taylor Mali