The curse of ‘Broken English’

By Andrew Taylor


“Sorry Sir, my English is broken.”

As an English teacher, I have heard these six words all too often. I’ll try and have a conversation with a student and they’ll give up on conversing because of this notion that their English is “broken”. It really does seem like students have been cursed or plagued to automatically say those words. But what does “broken English” really mean?

The definition of “broken” in The New Oxford American Dictionary, is,“having been fractured or damaged and no longer in working order; rejected, defeated; sick or weakened”. Someone might have a broken arm, or a broken leg, but can one really have broken English?

The second definition in the same dictionary is “having gaps or intervals that break a continuity”. Now, you might be thinking that this is the definition that relates to language but I beg to differ. Many people who were born and raised in America and learned English as their first language, have gaps and intervals within the flow of their speech when speaking English.

Even the President of the United States, Barack Obama, pauses and displays intervals when he gives speeches. Does that mean that both Obama and I speak ‘broken English’? I see the usage of these words as communicating a lack of confidence within oneself. It’s a sort of cop-out or a way to avoid some form of embarrassment that the person thinks they will receive, but there is nothing to be ashamed of, my friends!

Whenever I hear these words, I will always respond by telling the student that there is no such thing as “broken English”. English is English. If one can convey their thoughts and ideas through spoken communication using English words, then they are speaking English. Their diction and sound may not be like mine because I was born and raised in a country where English is the primary language. They may not speak the same slang as I do. But even if they are speaking simple sentences, forget a preposition, or use a verb in the present tense rather than the past tense, they are still speaking English. The process of communication is still working.

It is the concept, or idea behind the phrase, “My English is broken”, that doesn’t sit well with me.

We can argue all day about the definition of these words, but it is the mentality supporting this phrase which results in these words being used in the first place. It’s a mentality of non-belief and skepticism for the possible. The reaction of a young person to use these words to describe their speech, is birthed out of a thought of doubt inside their mind. It seems like it’s a way to laugh off a lack of self-assurance they possess. And, sometimes the friend standing beside the student trying to speak in English, will laugh and point. They might make a comment, giving them the label of one who speaks “broken English”.

This is a recipe for a continued path of not taking chances and forbidding themselves to even try to speak English. They won’t raise their hand in class because they think they speak broken English. They won’t try to answer a question because if they do, then they think everyone will point and laugh at them. This is one of the elements that pushes a student to speak in a voice reminiscent to that of a pin falling through the air and hitting the floor. It instills a lack of confidence, a lack of effort, and a mind absent of self-reliance. And, it’s possible that this can lead to other insecurities about themselves as well.

So, students…young people…

Can we please move away from using the words, “broken English”? Maybe we can use the words, “I have a developing knowledge of English” or “I have an ongoing enhancement of English”. Or to keep it simple yet true, just say, “I speak English”!

It’s a lot more positive than calling it “broken”. I know what it’s like trying to speak a foreign language. I’ve had my turn at trying to learn Spanish, Mandarin, Bahasa Malaysia, and now that I live in a predominately Bidayuh community in Sarawak, the Bidayuh language. Yes, it can be challenging. And, sometimes it can get frustrating when trying to convey my thoughts to someone and they just look at me and grin because they don’t understand the jumbled words and sentences I’m saying. But if I told myself over and over that I speak broken BM, or if I had a friend standing next to me pointing, laughing, and making fun of me, it would be easy to just give up right there and then. What’s the use, right? I don’t want to be laughed at and made fun of!

But the more one practices their language skills, the better they’re going to get at it. So, if you don’t even make an attempt at speaking, then you’re not going to learn. Don’t feel ashamed! I say this because I can relate not only to my students out there trying to learn English, but also adults as well. Try to erase the word, “broken” from your mind and just use the word, “English”. Try it and see if you gain more confidence and belief within yourself that you can communicate to people in English.

You might be surprised!


Andrew Taylor hails from Los Angeles, California. He is a Fulbright Fellow under the United States Department of State, teaching here in Malaysia for the second year in a row.
Last year he taught at a Vokasional school in Perak and this year he has felt so blessed to be living and teaching in Sarawak at SMK Siburan outside of Kuching.
He loves working with young people, but especially the youth of Malaysia. For Andrew, it’s an everyday occurrence to be inspired by his students and their unique inquisitiveness, kindness, and eagerness to gain new knowledge. Their smiles and sunny disposition are what make his days beautiful.
Sarawak and its people, culture, food, and splendid scenery, have become a place that Andrew truly loves and he feels fortunate to be able to call it his home.

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