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Posts Tagged ‘language’

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?

Sam

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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.

Sam

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Words

These words are not mine
Even though they pass my lips
Like sparkling lemon water
Making me thirst for more
The undulating rhythms
Of living language thrive
They constantly vibrate
But I study them from afar
These turns of phrase
This quickening of terms
Shaking me to my core
They say such sweet things
But I don’t quite get them all
Though I give them their space
So they can breathe without me
This page filling with ink
Bleeding in blacks and blues
Spreading in all directions
And I can’t always follow
As they leave me in their wake
These reminiscent shadows
Of the words I used to know
When they belonged to me
Before I set them free.

Sam

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41kiWnyMSFL._SY300_I said the F word in class the other day,  because a story I read to my students utilized it. It wasn’t just there as decoration, as I often see it, not merely masquerading as an adjective when another word would have been more appropriate. It was an exclamation of sheer despondence. And that’s just fine. Only, not around my kids.

I rarely use the F word, unless it’s in an aforementioned reading during class, or if it’s in the lyrics of one of my favorite gangster rap songs, or I hit my thumb with a hammer. But I hardly ever use hammers (1998 comes to mind), I only sing gangster rap when I’m alone, and only sporadically does that word show up in my reading material for class.

But somehow a couple of years ago my then 8-year old used it in school. I have absolutely no idea where she got it from, and I was mortified when they told me it was her, and what she said. When asked she had no recollection she had even used such a word, had no idea why we were making such a big deal. But it is a big deal, because words have power, especially that one, even these days.

Time was when the F word would elicit a reaction from everyone in the room, when every PG-13 movie didn’t include it as an afterthought. But that time is long past, and that word doesn’t hold quite the connotation it once did… to many people. To me, though, it is just as harsh to hear as it ever was. That was the point of it after all, to stop people in their tracks, to make them take notice.

Now everyone uses it. It’s become interchangeable for so many other words, probably because people these days don’t feel the want or need to obtain a larger vocabulary, and Parental_Advisory_Explicit_Content__15477_zoom1thus have multiple ways of getting their point across without swearing. It has become the ultimate placeholder, a bitter commentary on the state of our world, and on the state of language itself.

Since that time in class I’ve used the word three times, two of which were in private, and the other was when it was just me and my wife in the room. Oh yes, and I wrote and performed a poem about it in front of about 30 people a couple of Thursdays ago too. You could say I’ve been a bit obsessed with the overuse of the word for a while now, and I was inspired to write a poem where nearly every line had the F word in it, to show the idiocy in relying on that word and that word alone to get across every point you ever need to make.

It was well received, by the way, the poem, but I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps those in attendance got my real point, but I worry they liked it because they got to hear the F word about 30 times in a 40 line poem. And you want to know something? Each time I arrived at it one more time I had to gear myself up to say it, to let it come forth from my mouth. Because I’m still not used to it.

And I hope I never get to that point.

Sam

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Every relationship has an originality to it that defies explanation, but it can be seen in the subtle signals, in the secret code, and in the routines that separate the two within it from the rest of the world. No matter if the relationship is a short one or has some longevity there are always objects — things — that define the connection while also explaining why it’s a special one.

My wife and I decided to give our relationship a chance 13 years ago this month.

If I were to leave a message for my wife describing our relationship using only objects and no words, those objects would be:

livebirds

scrapbook4

51b047f9dd1f0958da73770a743afed0

woolrich-flannel-pajamas-long-sleeve-for-women-in-ecru-sheep~p~37095_04~1500.4

email

222580_182983328419186_1534185_n

Sam

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127192508_640When I first began teaching ninth grade English I remember thinking about the language I was going to use and whether or not the students would understand the way I normally convey language. And the thought process was all tied up and twisted together with the zone of proximal development I had learned in my education program in school, the process of learning that forces kids to stretch beyond their normal reach but not so far that they get frustrated. It also provides for some scaffolding to help kids reach that level instead of letting them flounder out there. But I think for ease’s sake, too many teachers, nay, too many parents, participate instead in the dumbing down of language.

My mother used language that I didn’t understand all the time when I was growing up, but she also encouraged us to ask questions, and the same was true when reading books. One of the biggest issues most kids have when it comes to tackling large words when reading is that they want everything given to them. As a parent it’s hard to watch your children struggle with doing anything, much less trying to tackle words that are a bit too big for them, but one of the worse things you can do is to make it too easy for them. They won’t learn the glory of perseverance and the satisfaction of achievement, and they will take too much for granted. My mother believed in that philosophy, making sure she never gave me or my sister those words, providing us with support with letter sounds and blends, but never handing it over pre-packaged. And I appreciate her for that. (more…)

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Translating prohibited

Funny how some days the talk around the water cooler is pretty standard fare, like who got to bed late last night and why, like which TV shows are funny and which ones are overrated, or like the crazy things that go on at our jobs. So of course today we had a rousing time talking about — what else? — dialects and translation technology.

I work with this girl whose family is originally from Norway, and she actually goes back to visit fairly often. I’ll call her Marika. At the same table sitting beside me was Sara.

Me: Do people over there speak in a weird way?

Marika: Well, um…

Sara: Weird? That’s not right to say.

Me: Oh, whoops. I meant different. Yeah, do they speak in a different way?

Marika: Well, yes. I mean, they speak English but there are so many different dialects as well. It can be hard to keep up.

Me: You speak Norwegian?

Marika: No, but you pick up some being around them for a little bit.

Me: Really? I could pick up Norwegian?

Marika: Sure.

Sara: Suuuuuure.

And of course that made me think about the French and Spanish courses I took while I was in school, and how if a kid is exposed early enough to other languages, that kid can pick up the languages like a fish picks up swimming. Imagine if you were in a household where at least three different languages were spoken regularly, and how advanced you would be in switching from one language to another.

Sara: Wouldn’t it be cool if some day, you know, before we die, we’re able to carry on us a universal translator so wherever we are it translates word for word what is being said?

Me: Then we wouldn’t have to wonder if the natives were talking about us behind our backs.

Marika: The natives?

Me: Uh, yeah. I’m not saying what I mean today.

Sara: I’ve got a translator for that.

Me: I just don’t like people talking about me behind my back in another language.

Sara: Sure.

Marika: Suuuuure.

I believe I said something about our Smartphones already being able to do the translating, but Sara brought up the good point that even our phones can’t keep up with certain dialects, slang, and accents that exist out there. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to have a translator that can keep up with the rapid fire way that people constantly shift and change language. Sara agreed, but still insisted that a translator could come pretty close, that we had the technology to make one that was almost perfect. At some point, maybe we will, but until then I think human translators will still be in high demand.

And don’t even get me started on sign language!

Sam

Water Cooler Musings Archive

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