Fred Bauters | February 1, 2017
Tim Machan believes the English language is far more than the order of letters and words.
It’s the highly personal, situational expressions we use to convey our ideas and feelings. It’s how we connect with or distance ourselves from everyone around us. We use it to define ourselves.
Machan, a professor in Notre Dame’s Department of English and fellow of the Medieval Institute, has spent 30 years researching and teaching English in its many forms and functions. His journey has pulled him further from grammatical conventions into how people around the world use English in their daily lives. He went in-depth for his 2013 book, What is English? And Why Should We Care?, to understand how the changing global landscape has and will be changed by English.
He uses the history of how English has been used—such as a story about his grandfather coming to the United States from Poland in the 1900s—as an instrument to illuminate the impact of the language.
Machan’s grandfather was part of a major influx of immigrants finding work in the automobile and other industries. The Ford Motor Co. set up its own English school to train its massive new workforce. Ford wanted to improve facility safety through communication and the immigrants wanted to become more American.
But through the promise of language, Machan points out, Ford crafted a dream for the workers that was unattainable.
“Workers thought they could be wealthy like those who got the office jobs, but the only ones who did were natives, Brits, or Germans,” he said. “They all had competing senses of what English is and what you can do with it. Workers believed that if they got a new accent, they’d get a new job. But accents aren’t easily changed, and we all get jobs, or not, for more than just our accents.”