Monday, 21 May 2018

My San Francisco Diary

It was the most perfect über echt experience imaginable. There I was, on the campus of Stanford university, just south of San Francisco, waiting for an Uber car to take me to the town of San Mateo, in the heart of Silicon Valley. The car that turned up was an all-electric Tesla Model X, as cutting edge as it gets, with its gull-wing doors and gadgetry galore. As I strapped myself in and we headed up the highway, I remarked to my travelling companions that, Silicon Valley or not, I still wasn’t quite ready to embrace the brave new world of driverless cars.

‘You’re not?’ said our driver over his shoulder. ‘We’re in driverless mode now.’ I gulped. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘That’s cool.’ (I had been trying to learn Californian and welcomed the opportunity to use it.)

And how appropriate, that as I write a diary about my experiences researching a documentary series on the future of the English language, I should reach for words like über and echt.


I was heading to San Mateo to interview the CEO of a Chinese company who have developed a highly successful app to enable Chinese speakers to improve their English. He was in Shanghai, but in these days of online video calls, that was no obstacle. Just six years after it was founded, the company claims to have more than 50 million registered users in 379 Chinese cities and more than a hundred countries around the world.

I tried the app for myself, filling in the missing words in simple English sentences, and trying to improve my pronunciation. I could choose either a British or an American pronunciation model; fortunately, given my background as a professional broadcaster, I scored pretty well at the British version, although I was stupidly proud to be awarded over eighty per cent in American as well. I reckon that makes me virtually bilingual.

But why do so many people still want to learn English in a world that already boasts a dizzying array of machine translation tools to enable anyone to translate anything at the click of a computer mouse? Some of the cleverest minds in Silicon Valley are already developing software that (I quote) 'feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.'

Well, almost. In fact, as you will instantly have recognised if you are a fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that is Douglas Adams's definition of a babel fish, 'small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe.' It may have seemed odd when he dreamt it up forty years ago,  but in Silicon Valley, it now simply qualifies as work in progress.


San Francisco combines the highest of high tech with the wackiest of low tech. The Teslas share road space with kickboard scooters (some of them equipped with electric motors), skateboards and monowheels, as well as bicycles, bendy buses, trolley buses, trams and cable cars. In the home of one of our interviewees, we were offered Assam tea in pint mugs, heated in a microwave. And at a poetry-reading in a bookshop in the city's Mission district, a sort of Californian Brixton, with a reputation to match, the clientele seemed to have been browsing the shelves ever since those heady, hippie days in Haight Ashbury circa 1966.


The city also hosts a distressingly high number of homeless people, many of whom display signs of mental illness or addiction. They are young and old, black and white, disabled and non-disabled. As a Londoner, I am used to seeing people trying to survive on the streets, but San Francisco’s crisis is on an entirely different scale. Whatever safety net might exist for those made homeless by gentrification, soaring property prices and inadequate health care, it is woefully unable to catch enough people who desperately need help. It is hard to love a city, however scenic and charming, if it fails so many of its own citizens.


Josiah Luis Alderete is not one of those who lost his home, but he did lose his business, a much-loved taco restaurant called Casa Mañana in ultra-liberal Fairfax, Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and the only town in the US where the Green party has a majority on the town council.

Having been forced to shut up shop when his landlord evicted him to redevelop the site, Alderete is now making a name for himself as a self-styled pocho poet (pocho was originally a derogatory term for Americanised Mexicans who had lost sight of their cultural traditions, but it is now increasingly used by Mexican-Americans themselves in the same way as some African-Americans use the N-word). He writes fierce, angry verse in Spanglish, using Spanish and English words often in the same sentence.

He was born in the US to Mexican parents, so why not write in English? ‘Spanglish is the language of resistance,’ he tells me. But does he dream in Spanglish as well? He bursts out laughing. ‘As a matter of fact, I did dream in Spanglish just last night.’


Spanglish and Konglish (a Korean-English hybrid) are both flourishing in California, as is Hinglish (Hindi-English) in India, and Singlish (Singaporean-English) in Singapore. So is the future of English to be a splintering into mutually unintelligible hybrids?  I doubt it, simply because of a continuing global recognition that English in its standard, internationally-recognised form is an invaluable aid to career advancement and prosperity.  In Uganda, for example, I met children whose mothers had insisted on speaking only English to them from the moment of their births. (But that won't stop them lapsing into Uglish once they become teenagers.)

To me, the joy of English is not only its incomparable history, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Milton and Dylan Thomas, but also its glorious variety and adaptability, the way it absorbs words and phrases from around the world and makes them its own. My late father, who learned his English as a schoolboy in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s, insisted to his dying day that the rules he had been taught then should be set in stone for all time. But even he didn't ask: 'With whom were you out last night?'

My four-part documentary series, The Future of English, produced by Julia Johnson and Mohini Patel, will be broadcast on the BBC World Service, starting on Wednesday, 23 May. It will also be available online, on the BBC Radio iPlayer, and to download onto your computer, tablet or smartphone.

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