‘Mind your language’

In the late 1970s I watched a British tv comedy called ‘Mind your language’, which about ‘a motley crew of foreign students’ (Wikipedia’s words) in an  English language class in London, but had almost forgotten it until I started teaching English. I decided not to show it to my students in case they took offence at the blatant racial stereotypes (which would probably not be allowed on tv now). Some time last year I came into the classroom after a break to find one of my students watching an episode on the computer. After I explained the premise to the students, they enthusiastically agreed to watch it and not get offended. The Pakistani students love the Pakistani character and his rivalry with the Indian character, but the Chinese students are perplexed by the now-superseded Mao-quoting Chinese character. I play an episode every now and again as a special treat. We are meant to seriously analyse the language points. (On the recent CELTA course, one of my fellow trainees mentioned watching and loving it. She wasn’t born when it was on tv.)

During the week we watched the first episode of the second season, in which a Swedish student joins the class. The first thing she says is “I here come to English learn”. This is not standard English word order, but is perfectly clear. At any level of syntactic analysis, “I come here” belong together, as do “to learn English”. Within each half of the sentence, there are six possible word orders. Probably the first requirements of English syntax are that “I” precedes “come” (subject-verb), and that “to” precedes “learn” (infinitive marker-base verb).

The six possible orders of the first three words, in the order shown by Google Ngrams, are:
(1) I come here
(2) Here I come
(3) Here come I
(4) Come here I
(5) I here come
(6) *Come I here

(1) is standard and clearly the most used, and (2) has “I” and “come” in the same order. (3) sounds poetic, but even in prose, inversion of a subject and verb is allowed in a limited number of circumstances (or example, after “here”, “there”, “in”, “out”, “up” or “down”). (4) is a red herring here: this word order is found only in phrases beginning “Come here, I want …” and “Come here, I say …”. (5) (used in the show) is very, very rare, and possibly poetic. (6) is not recorded on Ngrams, but might just be used in poetry.

(7) to learn English
(8) learn English to
(9) English to learn
(10) English learn to
(11) * to English learn
(12) * learn to English

(7) is standard and clearly the most used. (8)-(10) are likewise red herrings, being part of longer phrases. (9) and also (10) use “the English” (the people) as well as “English” (the language). (11) (used in the show) and (12) are not recorded on Ngrams. While it is possible to ‘split’ an infinitive with an adverb, is not possible to place the direct object there. Similarly, it is not possible to place ‘to’ after the ‘verb’; whether as an infinitive marker or a preposition, ‘to’ must precede the word it governs.
No native speaker would ever say “I here come to [some subject] learn”. Would any second language speaker really say this? The scriptwriter Vince Powell obviously thought so.


2 thoughts on “‘Mind your language’

  1. Many of the stereotypes and epithets have been ‘reclaimed’ – as comedy or in earnest – by some of the members of some of the groups.
    I have also discovered that there was a remake in the USA in the mid-1980s called ‘What a country’, but the one episode I have watched so far is much less about language.


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