As far as I know, I coined this sarcastic term about a decade and a half ago, but with modern cultural churn who can tell anymore if they invented anything or just heard it, forgot it, remembered it, and mistook remembering for inventing. My hope here is that since I have never encountered it anywhere else since "inventing" it maybe I really did.
But first, a few words about its well-established counterpart, ESL.
Standing for English as a Second Language, the term ESL is a useful aid to remembering that when non-native speakers of English struggle grammatically, it does not necessarily indicate the kind of mental confusion it does when native speakers so struggle. On the contrary, a below-average communication in English by an ESL student usually indicates an above-average mind at work, since the student is breaking free of the linguistic, mental, and cultural confines of a single language to embrace others, unlike the majority of Americans. Clearly, how far above the average varies widely, but too often we focus on the linguistic struggle; when we peer past the tangled structure of the communication to the better organized thoughts behind it, we work to do justice to the person's greater-than-apparent mental depth, but rarely do we really do justice to the person by peering past both to consider the kind of person who makes the effort to transcend linguistic boundaries.
Many people throughout the world are polyglot, more than here at home, but this is more than a value-neutral, statistical difference to be measured and recorded as a fact. There is an ethical dimension to the recognition that other languages have value as do the people who speak those languages, as there is to assuming anyone worth speaking with will learn English. Likewise, there is a philosophical dimension (that is, a moral imperative) to the lifelong struggle to break out of one's psychological and cultural blinders, and learning additional languages is a valuable tool in that struggle to become a better person. Every language carries its cultural and cognitive context with it intrinsically, and each language has advantages over others, lessons and concepts best expressed in that language. Someone who speaks but a single language frames his mind narrowly, denying himself access to the realms of thought to which other languages are better suited.
The relationship between thought and language is by no means mechanistic or deterministic. Even within a single language there are layers of understanding and development possible to those who more fully master their language than to those who do not, ideas that can be expressed and therefore considered but that require more effort to do so than the simpler, foundational concepts that come more naturally to speakers of that language. Likewise, spending time with ESL speakers gives one the opportunity to discover how English can be bent to encompass concepts that come more naturally to speakers of a different language when they work to express their own natural ideas in English. Spending time reading and working to truly grasp translations of works originally written in other languages offers one the same kind of portal; the more difficult the work (that is, the more alien the ideas the translation attempts to put into English) the better leverage it offers against one's own conceptual limitations. These and other opportunities for pushing the limits of English help create a wide scope of differentiation among even monoglot English speakers as to their cognitive dilation or constriction.
English in particular, being such a borrower from other languages, offers great variation in the cultural aperture of its speakers. (I do not single it out as unique in this regard, unlike so many English chauvinists who leech their self-esteem from association with what they perceive as the linguistic winner. For one thing, I do not speak anywhere near enough languages to judge fairly (can anyone?), but more importantly I know there are other strategies for linguistic expansion than English's borrowing approach; for example, German grows by borrowing concepts but fully translating them into (sometimes extremely polysyllabic) native German terms. I'm sure there are other strategies available to other languages. For purposes of this discussion, English's advantage is that its approach to borrowing is so crude, so obvious, that it wears its borrowing on its sleeve, calling attention to the issue.) I do not mean all English speakers are cosmopolitan, but rather that the difference between the most and least cosmopolitan English speakers is great.
Interestingly, we find English chauvinists at both ends of that spectrum. When a master of English with a daunting command of the language asserts the superiority of English, we may disagree but we are at least impressed by the speaker's own fluent superiority over ourselves. The most annoying group (yet amusing in their unintentionally ironic way) are English speakers who tout its virtues and propose the extermination of as many other languages as possible yet who speak English itself as badly as a beginning ESL speaker.
These illiterate chauvinists are part of a larger group of English speakers who think as badly as they speak; their waking life is like a dream state in which ideas never clarify and thoughts flow only partly formed from one to another with no greater context than the speaker's shifting emotional state. Although an ESL student's appearance of cognitive poverty is usually a linguistic illusion, this kind of native English speaker's appearance of cognitive poverty is genuine. English is their only language; they have no superior linguistic resources to fall back on to help them organize their thinking. They can only be said to have language skills in some kind of stripped-down, reduced definition of the term; in truth they hover somewhere between pre-linguistic and genuinely linguistic, with just enough language skills to pass for normal and pursue their appetites and drives. The contempt usually wrongly laced into the term ESL is far better deserved by this group of speakers, for whom I coined the term English as a First Language, or EFL.
Yes, in this era of dividing emotions into good ones and bad ones, contempt has been labeled bad and we are all to strive to purge it from our personalities, but in truth contempt is a vital emotion for helping give us direction, for helping to stimulate a profound aversion to those ways of being we must avoid if we are to become better people. Judging contempt as bad and eschewing it goes hand in hand with sliding into contemptible behavior oneself, making it easy to be lazy, ignorant, and selfish (since after all we must not judge). Any mature human being without a preprogrammed, reflexive aversion to contempt can easily combine contempt and compassion to put it to good use. Consider the poor EFL student whose mind is a fog, whose life is but a semicoherent waking dreamstate, struggling to pass for normal and defensively avoiding criticism and other opportunities to grow for fear they might expose his true ignorant nature. We have all been there. That is what those of us who are lucky and disciplined grow out of. We can sympathize with the plight of the EFL student, pity him and try to help him improve, but we should not let that dull our contempt for him, because we never want to be like that again and we do not believe it is okay for anyone to remain that way.
Even aside from simple defensiveness and our unwillingness to show contempt when it is deserved, a foundational delusion helps prevent many EFL students from improving, the delusion of adulthood. In our culture, we have a polarized, quantum model of maturation that by law divides life into completely helpless (younger than eighteen years old) and completely competent (twenty-one years or older), with an odd semi-adult stage between. This model has nothing to do with the individual, who is stamped with these Procrustean labels regardless of personal characteristics. The complete vacuity and irreality of this measurable, objective, mathematical system of "adulthood" warps us all psychologically to an extent unthinkable to most of us. Since at "adulthood" we acquire a host of legal and financial responsibilities (though with increasingly less authority as our civilization senesces into explicitly infantilizing us all) regardless of our personal resources, we simply have to fake it to convince ourselves we're ready and able and mature enough to handle those responsibilities. At adulthood, society offers us that or the asylum or prison so deceit and self-deceit in order to pass is the obvious choice.
Very few "adults" are willing to be open about their ignorance, which is a precondition for addressing it. Culturally, we do not model good behavior for becoming a genuinely mature human being, which requires a lifetime of study and practice to improve; instead we offer the polarized ignorant/educated model in every facet of life: there is the helpless & ignorant period of imposed study followed by graduation and acceptance and empowerment.
Embracing ignorance and studying to improve is separated from being empowered and respected, all of which is captured by the concept of "done." When we are "done" studying we graduate, but not until we are "done." But then, if we are "done," why would we need to continue studying? If we are still studying, we are clearly not yet "done."
The very framework of legal and economic reward in our culture reinforces this dichotomy, which is partly why so many of us fall for it. After graduation, most of us stop studying, and that includes studying to improve our linguistic skills. The cultural model for those who continue is that they do so for entertainment or as a hobby, but not as a vital, necessary part of becoming an adequate human being. Readers in our culture are a minority, serious readers a minority of a minority, and people who continue to study and discuss English itself are considered as fringe and eccentric as philatelists or birders (or philosophers). In our licentious culture, such quirks as continuing to study English after graduation may be permitted but they are by no means considered necessary, let alone something that all English speakers should emulate lifelong.
We have a static notion of maturation—it is a goal to arrive at, and then you are "done"—and we have an artificial and arbitrary notion of maturation—it has nothing to do with your intrinsic characteristics, only your age and perhaps certification by academic authorities. This model of maturation perfectly misfits the reality of language and thought. English, for example, is to spoken communication what Chinese is to written—a subject so complex and open-ended that precisely no one will ever truly master either one. Practical "mastery" of either one consists of having got a lot further in one's studies than most of one's peers, far enough to realize that (a) one will never finish and (b) it is worthwhile and necessary to continue studying it lifelong. That combination of education, dedication, and humility is about as much as one can hope for in open-ended fields like this, and such people are the ones who usually discover and share the insights that advance the field.
By contrast, those who stop studying English when they are "done" remain linguistic and cognitive cripples lifelong, with enough skills to pass, to fit in, to be accepted into the herd, but not enough to genuinely think or communicate. This truth about our situation is so important yet underrecognized that it needs terminology. Given the moral imperative of the situation and my distrust of affectations of objectivity, I prefer a judgmental term like EFL.
And just to clarify, usually when snooty, discriminatory types like I doubtless appear to be throw about standards and judgments on subjects, our ulterior motive is almost always to split the world into good and bad with ourselves (oh so coincidentally) on the good side. I hope I have made clear that I am doing no such thing here. EFL syndrome is a side-effect of intrinsic factors in our shared culture, the one I belong to. We all have it to greater or lesser degrees. We are all struggling to some extent with our linguistic and cognitive inadequacies.
I am studying language and philosophy remedially, not just to get better but also to make up for lost decades of inadequate study. My command of language is crude and I have no coherent style, and my thinking is riddled with cultural viruses. I am usually at a loss as to how to communicate with other human beings. If ever I slip into hubris, I always have Shakespeare and Austen and Vidal and so many others to remind me what real fluency looks like and Heraclitus and Hegel and Arendt and so many others to remind me what real thinking looks like. And between me and them are layers of expertise—I am not one step away from their fluency but rather many stages of development away, some of which I understand sufficiently to identify them as absent from my language and thought, and doubtless others of which I can do little more than suspect their existence.
In short, if you feel I am judging others harshly, fear not: I am judging myself by the same standards and found wanting. Why not be "compassionate" or "reasonable" and lower my standards? Because they are not mine; they are the requirements imposed by reality on what constitutes a genuine capacity to comprehend the actual cosmos and communicate meaningfully about it. Rather than ignore our responsibilities or whine about them or lie to ourselves about them, we need to impose some standards and discipline on ourselves and resume the lifework of uplifting ourselves enough to be worthy of the civilizational—nay, special—task we face. We have met the enemy and he is us. If we want a better world, we must become better people.
Why would anything less constitute maturity?
[Final two-and-a-half paragraphs completed Sunday, 13 April 2008 at 11:45 PM]