Hey, Zeus!

zeusSilent letters have always perplexed me. As a huge proponent of the English language, I can’t help but consider them my friends, but it’s more like in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of way.

Why name her “Sarah” when you can name her “Sara”? Why is it a “gnat” instead of a “nat” or a “knot” instead of a “not”? I’m sure somewhere along the way the letter was an important part of the word, for whatever reason, but these days… well, these days silent letters are simply the bane of my existence.

I saw a copy of the Declaration of Independence this week, and I noticed that the word was “Congrefs” instead of “Congress.” I completely understand if the type face didn’t have an “s” back in the 18th Century, but it so obviously did, as evidenced by the “s” at the end of the word. How hard would it have been to just put another one in front of it instead of that horrendously wrong looking “f”? Sometime around the 20th Century they fixed all of that nonsense, but I’m just curious why they had to suffer through it for so long before that.

And don’t even get me started on letters that don’t sound a thing alike, depending on the constitution of the other letters contained in the word they find themselves chained to at any particular time. For example, sometimes the G is hard, as in grape, and other times it’s soft, as in stranger. Sometimes the C makes a harsh sound, like in Carbon, while on occasion it’s smooth like in Cereal. How are kids supposed to recognize when it’s supposed to be the “s” sound instead of a standard “c”?

Then there’s words with blends, like the TH combo. What’s up with that one? “This” and “The” arguably start with different sounds. When the TH is at the end of the word it can be a hard stop or it can be a smooth ride, depending on whether or not a silent letter is tacked onto the other side of it. Think of words like “Bath” and “Bathe,” or “Breath” and “Breathe.”

We teach our mouths to say some difficult words throughout the course of our lives, but none are harder to adjust to than names. That’s because names are individual, even when they aren’t. That means even though Brianna and Brianna are spelled the same, one could carry an “ANA” and the other an “AHNA,” depending on whatever preference her parents had for her. That’s why as a teacher I always offer an apology each semester before trying to pronounce my students’ names.

“I know you’ve had your name for at least 17 years, so you’re very familiar with how it flows from your lips, but I don’t know you from ADAM, so I’m going to need a little help here,” I tell them before diving into the list of increasingly more challenging names to both spell and pronounce. Even when they seem easy.

And of course there are also words from other languages, where their rules are completely different from the ones for English, but at least they generally stick to their rules without so many exceptions. I swear, for every random group of English words there are probably a few exceptions. But when I look at French, and German, and even Spanish, there just aren’t too many things I can mess up, except for names. Of course names are still an issue, because in English, or Spanish, or even Swahili for that matter, they remain individual to each person, and so carry an element of surprise.

I’m used to seeing “Jesus” and thinking “Gee-Zuss.” That’s how I grew up, as the son of a preacher, in these here United States. But so many parents of Latino heritage proudly name their sons “Jesus” and it sounds like they’re calling the king of the Greek gods, like he’s getting away from them and they want to catch his attention. “Hey, Zeus! Wait up. Wanna play catch?” Or in the same language, the double-L situation that sounds more like a twisted “Y” than anything else?

So I never assume I’m saying anything correctly if I’ve never seen it before, even if it follows basic rules of other words I’m very familiar with, because odds are it just might be totally different. I might know how to say “Cow,” but “Mow” doesn’t carry the same sound. I might know that “Tao” rhymes with “Cow,” but some may think it must sound like “Day-o.” Your name might be “Maella,” and I have no clue it’s pronounced “Maya.”

That’s because language is fluid. It shifts and changes so often, the pronunciations undulating like so many snakes, and it can be manipulated to suit individual preference at the same time. There are probably a hundred ways to say different vowel sounds that I’m sure I haven’t heard every single one. And my brain hurts when I think about the sounds those pesky blends can possibly make.

But that’s the same reason I love language so much, because there’s always a word to express what you’re really feeling, what you really mean to say, at any given moment. There’s always a way to bend words to your will, to remake them in your own image, even within a small circle of friends. I love the idea that language can keep growing long after words are introduced and accepted into the lexicon. And I live for each first day of school, through all the starts and stops, as I learn each new name.

Because who likes things to be too easy?


English As A First Language

english-language-day“I know English,” he tells me. “I was born here in America.”

“Then why don’t you use it correctly?” I want to ask, but I don’t. I don’t because I’m a teacher, and I’m worried that he won’t be receptive to the learning that’s about to take place.

“A lot of people who were born elsewhere can use English better than you can,” I want to say, but I stop myself. It’s not about others. It’s about him, and why he’s so resistant to getting better at the language others will judge him for in the future.

“There’s a difference between knowing English and being able to utilize it correctly in your writing, and we all have work to do that way,” I say instead. I can tell he’s trying to process that. Then he nods, and I know there’s still a chance for this kid.

He is a college freshman. Most of the kids I teach are. I am a writer, but teaching writing is a completely different animal. It takes a patience, a perseverance, an understanding, and a diligence that I’m not sure a lot of other professions have, because semester after semester there are always a few who feel they have nothing left to learn about the language we all love. They are wrong. The key is figuring out how to show them that without wounding their fragile egos.

If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it.

The kids I teach today learned how to write using text messages and emojis. It has been an integral part of their world since day one, and auto-correct is their king. If auto-correct changes something they go with it, regardless of how ridiculous it sounds. If spell check says the word is “its” they’re going to rock with “its” until the day they die, no matter the circumstance.

“If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it,” she tells me, turning her phone to show me that urbandictionary.com backs her up. I’m afraid to tell her that urbandictionary is not a real dictionary, that its words are largely made up and its definitions are wholly untenable.

“The dictionary has certain colloquialisms in it that, while they’re used in informal speech, have no place in formal writing,” I say, instead of telling her that she’s bowing down to a false idol.

grammar_timeI’ve learned a fascinating truth over the course of teaching for 10 years: It’s very difficult to teach people something they already feel they know. Learned habits and grammatical mistakes are compounded because they don’t listen when something is explained the correct way. They believe that having English as a first language makes them experts when it doesn’t. It hinders a lot more than it helps, especially in the classroom when I’m trying to remind them how to construct complete sentences.

I fell in love with English because of its complexity. I knew from an early age that the language identified as national by our country was a complete behemoth, that in order to tame it I would have to focus and understand just as much about the pitfalls as I did about the correct usage. I was enchanted by its idiosyncrasies and thought that to be its master would take a lifetime. It does.That’s because English is constantly changing, even from the time these college students were children to now.

“You know what I meant,” he says when he once again fails to capitalize the word “I.” And he’s right. I definitely knew what he meant, but that won’t help him when he does it on a cover letter for his dream job and that letter gets quickly recycled.

It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly.

Because the beast that is English grammar cares not two whits about intention. It only cares about what resides on the page, what was actually written down. It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly. And it matters. When there are 300 people applying for 10 jobs, and so many of them are comparable in terms of skills and experience, many resumes and cover letters are weeded out based on errors.

It’s called taking care of and cultivating this glorious language we’ve been entrusted with, not making excuses for why we haven’t done so. That’s why I spend so much time and effort working hard to make sure my students understand how massively important it is to master English, regardless of where you were born.


Summer School English

Today was the first day of summer school, and for the third straight year I am teaching during the summer. It’s definitely an interesting thing, having students who have all failed more than one subject during the school year, but very few of them actually failed English (my subject matter). That makes it strange, teaching these kids English when most have completed English already and are prepared in the subject for the fall. So I’m instead focusing on helping them to enjoy reading.

I remember when I was in ninth grade and my English teacher asked us what we liked most about the subject. My answer was getting to read all kinds of different things. I have always loved reading because it allows me to use my imagination, and I sure have a pretty big one, I’ve noticed throughout the years. But I knew I wasn’t going to be teaching students who were like me, kids who loved school. When I asked the students today what they liked about English they said “nothing.” I was right, but that’s okay.

They told me that they first off didn’t like having to read. They referred to it as “boring” and “lame.” So I told them not to worry about it. This summer all they had to do was listen, and then write down their honest reactions and character information. They looked at me like I had three heads. But I was serious with them, and I stayed true to my word today. I will all summer.

You see, I learned early on that if I give kids the books and tell them they have the option of reading along while I read aloud, it gives them ownership over the experience. Instead of being frustrated readers, they can be interested listeners, which is a huge change from what they go through in their English classes during the year. They looked at me like I was crazy at the start, but by the end of the reading experience they all had their sheets filled out with character information and honest reactions.

We’ll see how it goes, but at least there’s a spark there. Let’s see if it can be fanned into a flame.


In Tongues

“But I don’t speak Russian,” he told her as he looked at the sign above what appeared to be a tavern.wpid-IMAG0310-1.jpg

She looked at him in puzzlement because it seemed she only spoke Russian. Shaking her head, she tried a different approach to get him to understand.

“Я хочу вам правильный путь. Я хочу вас, но я хочу вас хотят меня тоже,” she said in a rush, breathless with the knowledge that he wouldn’t know her innermost thoughts, even though she had said them aloud.

He didn’t understand, but the flowing way she said the words gave him pause. They had only met through the internet, and then they had used translators, so the wording was stilted on both ends. But once he heard her speak, and heard the tone of her voice, he knew he was in love. So, he tried speaking with his hands as well as his lips.

“I don’t even know how to begin, but I’m in love with you,” he said as he looked deeply into her eyes. “Okay, I guess that wasn’t so hard, but maybe that’s just because you don’t know what I’m saying. But it’s still hard for me, because I’ve been hurt before, and you don’t understand, but I just wanted to say it.”

“Мне нужно принять мое дыхание медленно. Ваша любовь это мой наркотик,” she continued in that melodious, flowing cadence he could not deny. She could have been quoting the phone book for all he cared. He had to have her. So he put his hand over his heart and mimed a beating pattern, then pointed at her. It was rudimentary, but he saw her eyes soften and crinkle.

And somehow she knew what was coming, the universality of body language giving him away. He leaned toward her, putting his arm around her waist. Somehow, someway, they would connect, on some level, on all levels, and he would find that way, but for then, they would use the oldest language, and also somehow the deepest. As he drank in the wonder of her eyes, his lips tasted hers, those sweet lips that spoke novel words that sparked his soul, even if he knew them not.

And he kissed her.

И он поцеловал ее.


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