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Why Learn “Proper” English? (Part I)

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For you young athletes who decide to live life your way and by-pass learning “proper” English, let us look at Michael Irvin’s story -- a superstar wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.

With fame came great troubles -- e.g. career ending addictions. “I used to think I could do everything myself. I didn’t need to play anybody’s game; I was going to do it my way.” All of his legal, marital, and other troubles caused him to stop and think about what was going on within him and also in his life. “It’s all about self-esteem.

I lacked self-esteem, going all the way back to kindergarten. I couldn’t read or write, but the White kids could. I thought, ‘I’m just a dumb Black kid!’ I didn’t realize the White kids had been to preschool. That lack of self-esteem stays with you. You’re always trying to prove to everybody how great you are; how perfect you are.”

Because of Irvin’s pleasing personality, his friends in high places offered him a job as a television commentator for an Arena Football League team -- a job immediately threatened by his poor use of “proper” English, diction, and grammar. Since he was not academically prepared to do anything else, Irvin put as much effort into improving his English (something he should have done in grade school when it was much, much easier) as he had put into perfecting his football skills.

“I wanted to be the best in football, and now I want to be the best in broadcasting,” he said. For that reason, he started working with a voice specialist and was publicly recognized for being the most dedicated and disciplined student the specialist ever had.

But he continually had trouble using the correct verb tense. The Tenses of a Verb are the various forms that indicate primarily different relationships of events in time.

For example, in the Active Verb Tense category are: (1) present - I ask; (2) past - I asked; (3) future - I shall (will) ask; (4) perfect - I have asked; (5) past perfect - I had asked; and (6) future perfect - I shall (will) have asked. In the Active Progressive Verb Tense are: (1) present - I am asking; (2) past - I was asking; (3) future - I shall be asking; (4) perfect - I have been asking; (5) past perfect - I had been asking; and (6) I shall have been asking. The Passive Verb Tenses: (1) perfect - I am asked; (2) past - I was asked; (3) future - I shall (will) be asked; (4) perfect - I have been asked; (5) past perfect - I had been asked; and (6) future perfect - I shall (will) have been asked.

Incidentally, one way of losing a job over the telephone (because it labels you as a “Black” person) or during an interview is to pronounce “ask” as “axed.” Irvin was also taught by his vocal instructor to start reading more widely. “He has got me reading the front page of the newspaper for the first time in my life. I used to only read the sports section. (Want is the improper English in those two statements?)

At this point in his progress, Irvin was falsely accused of a crime. Although the charges were eventually dropped, so much damage had been done from simply being accused that the network fired him. But then influential White friends gave him great character references and he was rehired.

Meanwhile, he made a commitment to God and to his wife to stop all self-defeating habits, including using offensive language. He started attending church and regularly made powerful speeches in church and to other public audiences.

He worked hard on keeping his promises because, as his wife pointed out, to break your promises is to be out of control. Young athletes, the lesson to learn from Irvin’s life is to make the most of a good education and learn “proper” English while it is available to you. Both will be keys to your success in the marketplace.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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