Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

The Importance Of Pronunciation

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Now this is a funny story. Granted, it’s only funny now that it has been resolved happily. I’m sure it wasn’t very funny for the volunteer in question at the time. But I have it on good authority (I’ve told a few other people) that it is funny now.

One of our fabulous recent volunteers was flying from Trivandrum airport via Doha back to the UK. Her flight was due to leave at 4 or 5am on Monday morning.

At 3am I woke up (for no apparent reason) and rolled over to check my phone. About a minute later I got a text message from her asking me to call her ASAP. Which I did. She was at Immigration having checked in for her flight. Immigration were asking her a lot of questions about where she had been and what she had been doing, etc.

They had tried to call Johnson but hadn’t been able to reach him.

I told her not to worry, I would call him straight away and get him to call her back. Which I did.

He then phoned her and was able to speak to Immigration and clarify the situation.

It turns out that she had been asked where she was staying. She said Karumkulum. Or rather, she thought she said Karumkulum. They thought she said something else. Mispronunciation is quite common and we can usually get around it. However, in this case, the thing they thought she said was the name of a local nuclear reactor, where there had been recent protests.

This was not ideal.

And her being a Polish bio-medical student didn’t exactly lend weight to the English teacher story.

However, Johnson managed to explain everything.

They took copies of her passport, visa and student card and then let her on the plane.

And the moral of the story is that mispronunciation is fine, unless your mispronunciation makes it sound like you’ve just told Immigration that you’re a Polish bio-medical student who has been teaching English at a nuclear plant! 🙂

Words We Shouldn’t Have

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

English is a rich language. It has a very large vocabulary. There are words in English for most things (though there are also a lot of things for which English doesn’t have a word: sometimes we borrow words from other languages, sometimes we just sort of estimate and approximate and point in the right direction).

But there is at least one word that we have in English that we shouldn’t have. In fact, I don’t believe any language should have a word for this. The word is ‘self-immolation’.

The mother of a student at one of the primary schools we work in died on Wednesday. It seems her husband was a drunkard who routinely beaten her and the children (unfortunately, this is a very common story here). He came home drunk on Tuesday night asking for food. She said there wasn’t any. He wasn’t bringing any money into the home (he was drinking his wages) so what could she use to buy food?! He got angry. On Wednesday morning she woke up and prepared food for her children. The husband saw that she was preparing food for them and got angry. She poured fuel over herself and set fire to herself. She was holding a knife to keep anyone away who tried to stop her. The husband, it seems, did try to stop her. Not successfully. The children now have no mother and a drunkard for a father. I hope the famous family culture in India steps in to look after them.

No language should have a word for setting fire to oneself. Domestic violence should not be allowed to escalate to the point that women see suicide as their only option. The pressures relating to dowry should not be allowed to escalate to the point that women see suicide as their only option. Countries should not be allowed to persecute a minority to such an extent that Buddhist monks in Tibet see suicide as their only option. In each case these things should not happen at all, however when it is common and unremarkable for people to set themselves on fire something is very, very, very wrong with our society.

Self-Immolation should not be a word. It should not be a concept. It should not be common practice. Not for any reason. Not in any culture. Not in any religion. Not in any country. Not in any language.

By Heart

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

‘By heart’ is a phrase we use in English. “I learnt the poem by heart.” It means to memorise something. It is used as a verb, here in India: “most lesson time is spent by-hearting the textbook”. And this is another beautiful use of language. If you don’t make ‘by-hearting’ a verb here then you are left with very few verbs that can be used to describe what happens in an Indian classroom. Verbs are doing words. And Indian classrooms don’t involve that much doing!

Most teaching here (I use the term ‘teaching’ as loosely as possible) involves the teacher writing on the board and the students copying. Or the students working from the textbook. Sometimes the teacher is in the room shouting or caning people occasionally. Sometimes the teacher isn’t there at all.

But even when teaching does happen in Indian classrooms it is all about the teacher transferring information to the student. The teacher tells the students what the answer to the question is. They by-heart it. She then asks the question. They tell her the correct answer or get shouted at.

Students are actively discouraged from thinking for themselves, from questioning, from developing an understanding of the material.

So asking students to summarise a text is difficult. Not just because I’m asking them to do it in English, but because the very nature of summarising involves thinking for oneself. You need to read the information in the source text, understand it, process it, extract the key features, express those key features. Not within the normal skillset of the average Indian school student.

I do a warm up activity called “What’s the Question?”. I give students an answer (e.g. water) and they have to ask questions that have that as the answer (e.g. what do we drink?). I have done this activity with primary, lower secondary, senior secondary and post-secondary students. And the quickness of the response, the creativity, the variety of responses all decline markedly with the age of the students. Some of the primary kids I’ve had have come up with some amazingly interesting questions! I put this down to the fact that they have had several fewer years of the Indian education system trying to beat creativity and autonomy out of them.

And there is a place in education for learning by rote. I was recently able to answer the burning question “Which element of the periodic table is Phosphorus?” because I memorised the first 20 elements for Year 11 Chemistry (way back in a dim and distant past decade). There is also a place in education for telling students that they don’t need to understand exactly why, they just need to be able to use it (one month before the GCSE exam, they don’t need to know how to derive the quadratic equation by completing the square, but they do need to be able to use the quadratic equation). However, both of these features of education should be limited. There is much more mileage in teaching students how to think, how to question, how to learn. Because then, they can expand their learning to fit their needs and their potential for growth and development is so much larger!

I hope the Indian education system wakes up soon. And I hope that ‘by-hearting’ will become, for Indians, as ridiculous a verb as it currently seems to us from the UK.

Correct Versus Successful Communication

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Language is an interesting thing. It exists in its own right as a set of patterns and rules that can sometimes be very beautiful. But its primary function in most contexts is communication.

And correct use of language certainly aids communication but communication is something that transcends language. I’ve seen incorrect language be used to communicate successfully and I’ve seen language that is technically correct lead to miscommunication.

So even though I’m an English teacher in my spare time, I’m actually more interested in communication than in the English language itself. And I love the beautifully poetic way that non-native speakers use my language.

For a start I love the accents. They’re cute, beautiful, sexy, funny, quaint, hilarious, musical, etc. (except the Australian accent which I find somewhat ugly and annoying – though maybe it doesn’t count since we Aussies are technically native English speakers).

But I also love some of the errors/misuses/different uses of language that people make.

One of my Indian friends says “the beach is full of dirty”. And I love that. It’s not wrong, it’s poetry.

My Spanish dance teacher was talking about “making sure your laps are touching” for a step in Argentine Tango. He meant “upper thigh”, but he also meant “lap” because you need to have your legs bent enough so that your lap exists. Again, not an error, poetry.

And whether these things are technically correct or not doesn’t matter. What matters is whether communication happens and in both of these examples there was no ambiguity, the communication was successful. Plus, they both made me smile. 🙂

So if I smile, or giggle slightly when non-native speakers use my language, I am certainly not laughing at them, I am delighting in the creativity and unexpected beauty that they bring to my language.

Though I struggle more to see the beauty and creativity when native speakers gets things wrong. I don’t think that “think different” (Apple’s tag line at one point) is poetic. I think that it speaks to an ignorance of adverbs. Perhaps I should change my viewpoint and try to see creativity and poetry here too!

My New Favourite Phrase

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

One of the great things about living in countries that use English is that they speak English in a slightly different way. There are differences between British English and American English and Australian English. There are also differences between Sri Lankan English (and the rest) and Indian English.

There are English words and phrases that I use in Sri Lanka that I don’t use anywhere else. “I can’t bear up.” “It is troublesome.” “This is unsuitable.” “Scold.” “What to do?”

There are now some that I’ve collected in India. “The beach is full of dirty” is one example. My current favourite is “after some time”. It is used a lot and it can mean a few minutes, a few hours, or never. When you call an Indian phone that is busy the message says “The person you are calling is on another call, please try again after some time.”. I love it! I’m not sure why I love it, it’s perfectly correct. But it makes me smile. Maybe because I hear it a lot. Johnson and Lisba went out to do some shopping. “Kath, we will be back after some time.” Johny and Dany went out (for whatever it is that they do). “Kath, we will be back after some time.”

It’s great! I don’t know how long my appreciation for it will last. But I’m sure that after some time I will find another phrase that I like more. 🙂

PS: possible new contender: “You are deviating my concentration.”


Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

When we were in Chennai I was incredibly impressed with Johny. He spoke to his friend in Malayalam. He spoke to me in English. He spoke to the locals in Tamil. (To be fair, his friend did the same thing.)

Ok, so once Johny did speak to me in Tamil. He got through the first sentence before laughing at the blank look on my face. 🙂

I speak English. I learnt French at school but have forgotten most of it. I know a hundred or so words of Sinhala and 5 or 10 words of Thai and Malayalam. I envy people who are multi-lingual.

But when I was talking to Johny’s family about this and I was singing his praises, I realised that I had actually communicated in 4 different languages that day. Granted, 99.9% of my communication was in English. But there was a Sri Lankan woman on the train from the airport. She has been living in Paris. So I managed one sentence of French and understood a few of her sentences. Most of our conversation was in English. There were a few words of Sinhala though. And I did manage about 2 words of Malayalam with Johny and his friend.

So perhaps there is hope. Perhaps I am better at languages than I give myself credit for. I just need to put myself in situations where I am able to practice more and I need to concentrate on actively learning more of the languages around me. I hope the next two months in India will see a massive improvement in my Malayalam.