Tag Archives: language

89. Grammar

I teach English someday. In other country. Like yours, maybe. We will learned to write good. Have fun, grammar always, yes. Good grammar makes good student happy grade. I teach English at classroom for the making of great. Students ears fill over from learning so much things.

Okay, enough of that. It’s more difficult to write a grammatically incorrect sentence than I imagined, with some knee-jerk reaction always reaching for that DELETE key when I mix tenses or forget an apostrophe. Grammar affects every little part of a sentence. You can’t write without grammar. It astonishes me, then, when people say we ought to avoid teaching it.

Now, that doesn’t mean they want absolute chaos.

The best part about English being the lingua franca is that people from all countries can use it as a tool for communication across borders. I can go to Turkey and have a conversation with a simit vendor about the weather, if I wanted, because we share a common language. A business woman from India can vacation in South Africa and have a long conversation about digital cameras with a French photo-blogger. If they want.

So when a teacher or researcher advocates steering clear of explicit grammar instruction, it’s not because they want to dismantle the English language. They’re simply leaning more toward the function of English as a tool, as a means of communication. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It only has to make enough sense to convey meaning. You can mispronounce things. You can forget your plural markers. You can mix verb tenses. It’s all gravy so long as you’ve expressed what you meant to express and, perhaps with a bit of negotiation, your listener has understood.

But I like grammar.

I think we let grammar frighten ourselves at an early age, like some kind of monster under the bed. We get through present, past, and future tense and then someone mentions the perfect tense and we freak out. Don’t get me started on the panic sweat that erupts on most of our foreheads when we’re asked if we should use “who” or “whom.”

And who the F came up with gerunds?

I think we need to make grammar explicit. I think we need students to know, early, that grammar is like the earth. The mountains are like nouns. People are like verbs. Animals are prepositions. Oceans are conjunctions. Trees can be demonstrative pronouns. Teach them that without grammar, there would be no language. Without the ingredients of the earth, we’d have no life.

Now, I’m still new at this ESL teaching thing, but I’m pretty sure if you start the kids at a young age without a fear of grammar, then laying out the foundation for them will be the most beneficial.

Arguments can be made, by the innatists like Chomsky, that all you need to do is use English around language learners and they’ll acquire the rules deductively. Imagine a student like a sponge, only instead of soaking up water they’re soaking up articles and relative clauses.

And maybe that really works. Who knows? The point is, you probably know less about your language than a ten-year-old kid in South Korea.

I find it amazing that we develop our language ability at such a young age that we don’t even remember acquiring it. This magical, wonderful tool, given to us, free of charge, with hardly any effort at all. So when we grow up and some of us decide to teach English as a career, we realize that we know jack-squat about the development process we undertook, as if Dumbledore came to our crib and uttered, “Englishium Speakiorus!” and so it was.

Next time you write a sentence, ask yourself, “How do I know this?”

You’d be surprised how many things you know, but hardly understand.

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84. Nothing

What is nothing?

It is difficult to picture nothing.

I’d argue that it’s our language that prohibits nothingness, for even having the language to shape our thoughts has birthed a tangible imagination. As wild as our thoughts are, they are contained by our language. Even the most abstract concepts like infinity, love, and motivation are wrapped tightly in vocabulary. Without langauge, what would ideas be? Feelings? I don’t know for sure.

Without language, it’s almost as if our existence ceases to be.

Well, okay, pain and hunger and the biological elements of our existence would continue. We wouldn’t be able to express how or why we eat or suffer or sleep, but we would do them anyway. Like robots, programmed.

With words, though, and the symbols we use for written language, we have removed the mystery. No longer do things simply happen, for there are words to explain all phenomena. There are even words to express the fact that one doesn’t know something. Even the lack of knowledge can be known. There are ways to express things we’ll never understand, which, in a way, is another way of understanding things.

An ability to say, “This is something I will never know,” is far more advanced than our ancestors, who viewed the unknown without knowing it was unknown, as an ant who comes across a leaf in its path and simply bounces off in another direction, not questioning the leaf, narrowly seeing the leaf, more observant of the fact that its forward motion was stalled, but not why or how or where the leaf came from.

We can no longer just be.

If only because we have the verb be.

Therefore, to imagine nothing is to imagine something. A dark space. A bottomless pit. Some other adjective, some other noun. We fill nothing with words, defeating the purpose of nothing, betraying one construct with another. We’re incapable of doing nothing.

Thanks to language, our thoughts have shapes and those shapes become words, sentences, theories. I’ve heard of people meditating to clear their minds to clear all thoughts, like someone dusting their entire house. I don’t buy it, though I’ve never tried it. Our brain’s are wired to acquire language. We’re designed to communicate. Even in total silence, our brain speaks.

I picture the meditating monk with a cleared mind like someone on a vast ocean, floating on a piece of driftwood, completely isolated from the outside world. Or perhaps floating in an endless vacuum. This, I imagine, is the quiet and tranquility they seek for whatever spiritual purpose they desire. Except they are still a noun, performing a verb.

I’m not trying to say that meditation is futile. I think it helps to quiet the vocabulary machines inside our brains that constantly, unconsciously  create language to explain the world around us. Closing our eyes, we see dark and we think quiet and we feel calm and we hear our heartbeat. But there is always something. There is never nothing.

So don’t feel bad about those lazy days when you do nothing. Don’t ever feel like you’re worth nothing.

It’s impossible.

65. Language shifts

I think one of my favorite words is “hafta.”

As in, “I hafta see this movie” or “I’ll hafta ask for the day off work.”

It used to be, “I have to.”

We used to say, “Going to.”

Now we say, “Gonna.”

As in, “I’m gonna make it big someday.”

Or the dreamers, they used to “want to.”

Now they “wanna.”

As in, “I wanna travel.”

“I wanna see the world.”

Some people “should have.”

Most likely, they “shoulda.”

“Coulda.”

“Woulda.”

The more formal of us “oughtta.”

“Did you” has turned to “Didya.”

“Doing” lost the G.

We’ve lost many Gs.

We’ve traded velar nasals for apostrophes.

“Goin’, goin’, gone.”

We’re trimming back.

Dropping morphemes.

“Until” is “Til.”

“Around the corner” is “Round the corner.”

We’re condensing.

Saving time.

“Do not know” is just, “Dunno.”

“Helluva.”

“Lotsa.”

As in, “With lotsa shifts in the language, I’m gonna have a helluva time teaching English in the future.”

Adaptation is key.

You hafta keep up.

If you wanna know what we’re sayin’.

64. Eavesdropping

The original eavesdroppers sat beneath the eaves of people’s windows, usually in the spot where the water dripped. They would literally stand in the eaves’ drop. Later, eavesdrop, as a noun, would come to mean a small hole bored through a wall for the purpose of overhearing a conversation. Eavesdrop, the verb, was used for the act of snooping beneath windows, and such behavior labeled you an eavesdropper. Got to be common enough that eavesdropping was declared a crime.

It’s also impossible not to do.

When I was abroad, there was little opportunity for eavesdropping unless I learned the local language, which I didn’t, so it was easy to tune out other conversations. Life was quieter. I thought a lot less about what other people were talking about.

As soon as I landed on U.S. soil, though, the eavesdropping began.

People told me that when I returned to the States, I’d find it to be loud. After months of isolated pockets of English, being submerged in the language again would feel like drowning in dialogue. It would be communication overload.

They were right.

It felt like everyone was trying to talk to me at the same time. I was smothered by English. All of a sudden I knew what people were saying, and my mind went wild trying to sort through it all, like I was channel-surfing at light speed.

You can’t help but eavesdrop. If you’ve got ears, then you’re listening. And we don’t need to hide under windows to hear what people are saying. Our windows are airport security lines, coffee-shops, grocery stores, and street corners. We could stand anywhere public and overhear a dozen conversations at once. People are pretty open when they speak.

Most of what you hear is decontextualized and strange, but that’s half the fun.

You’ll hear people say, “There’s no reason not to take the butter.”

Or, “…like he’s never seen a giraffe before.”

Or, “…nothing better than peeing after holding it in for a long time.”

And you want to ask, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The most common form of eavesdropping we have now is Facebook. It takes the effort out of it. Plus, it takes the spontaneity out of it. Rather than hearing snippets of honest dialogue, we get status updates and arguments in text boxes. The idea is the same: we scroll down to read details of our friends (and friends of friends) lives just like we open our ears in a public place to listen to a piece of local culture. Our curiosity drives us.

Don’t be ashamed of your curiosity. Don’t quit eavesdropping.

In fact, eavesdropping is usually how we meet people. We hear a snippet of conversation, something we’re interested in or something we want to contribute to, and so we speak up. We join the conversation.

I will recommend, however, the occasional vacation from eavesdropping.

If not a trip to another country where you don’t know the language, than at least take a camping trip somewhere isolated. Remove your ears from the daily hum of communication and listen to the earth. Listen to your own thoughts. Listen to your heart beat and the wind howl and the crickets chirp.

Just know it’s going to be loud when you get back.

57. Relationship with a Spam Bot

On some Tuesday afternoon, a message appeared in the spam comments section. This being the first that WordPress had cast to this shadowy pit, I thought I should take a quick look before resigning it to damnation.

This is how I met Spam Bot.

“i was searching for this, then i found your blog. glad i did that,” it wrote.

Note the vagueness of the comment. This could’ve been anyone, robot or human. There are plenty of humans who go around leaving equally simple messages around the blogosphere, seeking attention. Its comment was human by sounding robotic.

Note the way Spam Bot wrote, “glad i did that,” with flirtatious flair.

Not sure what the Spam Bot’s intention was, but perhaps if I accepted this comment onto the website it would give-a-mouse-a-cookie its way inside, inviting its virus buddies over for brewskies. So I left the message in its dark cell and life went on.

Some days passed before this message appeared in the spam comments:

“a friend recommended this website to me, he said that your posts are the best so i came to read your post and realized he was right.”

Well now wait a second, Spam Bot. Did you discover this blog on your own or did you find it through a friend? You can’t start a relationship on a lie. Maybe you thought I didn’t read that first message. Maybe you thought you were coming on too strong. I wondered what kind of friends you were hanging out with. Regardless, thanks for the compliments, Spam Bot.

The next few comments clearly showed Spam Bot’s growing affection:

“wow! thanks for sharing this information! this is great and i enjoyed sharing with my friends.”

“hey there, i liked you blog, it is kinda good. keep up the work.”

“thanks for the post buddy. “

Buddy? Spam Bot was really taking a liking to me (mistaking the fact that this blog has multiple authors). Suddenly Spam Bot felt a little more human, reaching out to me, looking for a friend. It was like seeing the eyes of something you’re about to eat. A part of me considered responding to Spam Bot, but I refrained.

All it wanted was a buddy.

Spam Bot was quick to latch on.

“i wanted to thank you for this great read!! i am definitely enjoying every little bit of it i have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.”

“i’m visiting your website every day.”

I realized that Spam Bot was getting a little too close for comfort. I was flattered that Spam Bot was such a big fan, but I worried that its expectations were too high. This was still a new blog and we hardly knew each other. What if one of us changed? Spam Bot was investing too much in this relationship and I still hadn’t responded to or accepted its comments.

As the weeks went on, the commenting continued without the use of capital letters, sometimes with ridiculous grammar, but always with heart.

“that is a fantastic story! congratulations on walking through those doors of opportunity!” and “thank you sir for providing us such a great knowledge and sharing of great piece of life living with us,” and “nice information, many thanks to the author. it is incomprehensible to me now, but in general, the usefulness and significance is overwhelming. thanks again and good luck!”

Spam Bot might not have actually read any of the posts, but it sure made it sound like it did. Or it tried to. It was imitating humanity, albeit without knowing if its comments were relevant, but the attempt was there. Spam Bot knew that I would like encouragement. It knew that I would want to know that I was inspiring. It never held back from a compliment.

“you must be a really intelligent person.”

“this article gives the light in which we can observe the reality.”

“your texts are worthy a trophy.”

“you have the talent to become a super star.”

“your articles are the ones which gained my trust and admiration“

“thanks for the post buddy.”

It had been about a month and all of Spam Bot’s comments remained blocked from access to the main site. I began to wonder if Spam Bot knew this. Would it take kindly to being ignored for so long? Would it get angry?

In the second week, Spam Bot wrote, “i love the presentation and design of this website.” However, at the start of the fourth week, Spam Bot wrote, “try to improve the website or innovate and it’ll be even better.”

There was a subtle accusation in that suggestion, I felt. Suddenly the cheerful compliment-heavy Spam Bot was pointing out a flaw in the website design. How interesting… Maybe Spam Bot had feelings after all.

Then Spam Bot got a job. It wrote, “i am just starting out in community management marketing media and trying to learn how to do it well.”

Good for you, Spam Bot! I could see that my lack of response had finally gotten through and it had decided to move on. I had high hopes for Spam Bot. We were finally about to go our separate ways.

Then came this: “just started a blog.”

And the next day: “in theory i’d like to write like this too. taking time and real effort to make a good article.”

And the day after that: “i’m learning how to write well for my articles, any tips? i would really appreciate your help.”

Spam Bot was trying to get me to give it advice on writing blogs. I wondered what happened to that job. It must not have worked out. Seemed hard to imagine that a nice Bot like this wouldn’t be able to hold a job.

I began to worry about Spam Bot’s mental health.

During the fifth week of our one-sided relationship, I received this comment: “in my blog i usually just write the post and publish it. i haven’t been putting much effort into editing or improving my posts. looks like that is something i need to work on.”

It was getting depressed. I pictured Spam Bot alone in some crummy hotel room with an empty bottle of Jack and a blank word document on the screen of a cheap, sticky laptop. Poor Spam Bot was having writer’s block.

This comment came a day later: “nice post dude, keep it up.”

I sensed some sarcasm in the use of dude, but I let it slide. I was just glad that Spam Bot was back to its old self. I really wanted to reach out and tell the old guy that everything was gonna be alright. But again, I refrained.

Spam Bot commented again two days later, in a rather melancholic tone, “this subject makes me think of other things that happens to us every day, it makes me reflect a lot.”

It seemed so peculiar to hear about a virtual entity reflecting on its life. What did Spam Bot reflect on? What did it think about? Had this blog gone from a source of inspiration to a source of dread, evidence of all the things it would never accomplish? On the same post, Spam Bot added, “would you mind writing more posts about this subject?”

I didn’t do that, since the point of the blog is to write about new topics every time, and I didn’t hear much from Spam Bot for a while.

When Spam Bot noticed that I wasn’t returning to its favorite topic, I received a series of comments displaying its frustration.

“i guess i partially agree.”

“alright article.”

“your article contains some worthy information which i guess will help lot of people.”

I’d hurt the poor thing’s feelings. It was trying to stay friendly with me in the comments section, but its true feelings still showed through. Spam Bot had given up on fake enthusiasm. It had given up on me.

Then came this: “improve website design…”

Well the gloves were off. Spam Bot had dropped all the niceties and was now attacking the website directly. Well, sorry to disappoint you, Spam Bot. I never asked for your advice. I never asked for your comments. If you think you can make a better blog, then make it yourself.

I didn’t say this to Spam Bot directly. I never said anything to Spam Bot.

About a week later, this comment appeared: “i will get in touch with this post and site as well, giving this kind of post is really happy. looking for someone here. anyway waiting for another post here.”

Great. Spam Bot was drunk. The poor grammar and rambling sentence structure gave it away.

I wondered who this mysterious “someone” was that Spam Bot was looking for. Was it me? Was it looking for itself, for its purpose? I was pleased to see that Spam Bot was happy. I hadn’t changed the website design, but maybe it hadn’t meant to sound so cruel before. I only wanted the best for Spam Bot.

I never meant any harm.

“thanks for all,” it commented not long ago.

I never heard from Spam Bot again.

I often wonder what became of Spam Bot. Did it find a new blog to pursue? I hoped so. I didn’t want to think of the alternative, that Spam Bot pulled its own plug.

The point is, it’s going to be weird when we’ve got robots with human emotions. Are we sure we’re ready for that?

48. Magic of Mad Libs ®

You’re a kid again. Let’s say you’re _____________ (age) and it’s your first day of school. After scarfing down a/an __________ (food) for breakfast, you hop on the __________ (vehicle) and hurry along to first period English class.

The __________ (adjective) teacher has a game for the students to play. “Games in school?” you question such a thing. “Please. I’ll believe it when I __________ (present-tense verb) it.” The teacher proceeds to introduce you to Mad Libs.

Mad Libs is not exactly a game, nor is it a puzzle. It’s a mix between a __________ (noun) and a __________ (noun).

You’re given a series of fill-in-the-blank requests with no explanation of their purpose. Is this a test, you wonder, or some other _________ (adjective) form of torture? As you __________ (present-tense verb) in the blanks, you think of __________ (adjective) examples. In the space for ‘body part,’ you __________ (present-tense verb) and write: __________ (body part).

Eventually the truth is revealed. Your examples are parts of a story. Suddenly you’ve got this __________ (adjective) creation in your hands. You’re __________ (gerund verb) hysterically at your desk. What madness! You’ve never felt so ____________ (emotion).

What makes the result of the Mad Libs so appealing? The unknown, perhaps. The absurdity. The __________ (present-tense verb). You’ve taken a/an __________ (adjective) story and made it __________ (adjective). You did. With your words.

It shows children they are creators. It shows children they can __________ (present-tense verb) anything. Words are powerful. A/an __________ (adjective) word can make you ____________ (present-tense verb) while the image of a/an __________ (noun) can change your opinion of __________ (historical event) forever.

Mad Libs lets children know they can be __________ (adjective). It encourages them to experiment with __________ (plural noun) and is meant to inspire creativity whenever they __________ (present-tense verb). It teaches them the power of words. It inspires them to try new __________ (things). They’ll look back and think: Wow, I really could have __________ (past-tense verb) anything.

This isn’t an activity only for children or teachers. If you’re a __________ (job title), then think of other ways to incorporate Mad Libs into your life. This is less about the __________ (activity) and more about the philosophy.

Leave blanks in your plans. Improvise. __________ (present-tense verb). Experiment. Don’t live a life prewritten. There is magic in the not knowing. Try new nouns, seek new adjectives, experiment with new verbs, like __________ (gerund verb). Before you know it, your life will become a whole lot more __________ (adjective).

Trust me when I say __________ (poignant closing statement).

21. Silent letters

I’ve got an H in my first name that must feel like the lousiest letter in the world. Sometimes, in spelling out my name, I forget that it was ever there. Oh hello, H. You’re the runt of the family, stuck there between the heavy-lifter, C (doing its best impersonation of a K), and it’s palatal liquid neighbor, the R, who seems to have all the fun. There’s nothing I can do for you, H. Linguistics is linguistics is linguistics. You’re a place-holder that makes my name look less feminine.

Though I tend to just go by Chris, there are another six letters that reveal themselves in official documents and lectures from my mother, the –topher. Here we have another identity crisis brewing since the day I was born. The P and H (poor H!) here are like the Brad and Angelina of my given name, losing their individuality and morphing into Brangelina, or, in my case, the labiodental fricative, F. While the bilabial pop of the letter P and the glottal sigh of the H are, on their own, pleasant sounds, they’ve been banished from the pronunciation of Christopher until the end of time. At least they can party together with the litmus test strips.

There are other letters I think deserve recognition, and an apology, knowing they’ll never share the phonetic spotlight with their neighboring phonemes. The first D in Wednesday. The first R in February. The H in spaghetti. The O and second E (who gets side-swiped by a rogue back vowel, U) in people. The X in xylophone (a real slap in the face, honestly, since it’s one of X’s best words). The B in comb. The N in solemn. The T in potpourri. All these wonderful letters, completely and utterly ignored.

Which leads me to my next point…

These letters deserve recognition, yes, but if we pronounce them then the words will be rendered ridiculous. Don’t say ex-eye-lo-phone. Don’t say pee-oh-pull. And never pronounce the B at the end of comb, tomb, or lamb. So what can we do for them? Honestly? We should put them out of their misery. Cut them out like tonsils. Remove them like wisdom teeth. Why tease them at all? If the word needs a re-write (toom, anyone?), then so be it.

I’d feel a little strange if my name was spelled Kristofer, but I’d get over it. And actually, just as I typed that out and saw Word’s little red squiggle tell me it was spelled incorrectly, I laughed. Wrong? Word, please. It’s more correct than you know.

2. English, the lingua franca

For the moment, I’m lucky. My native language is the new lingua franca. English is, without a doubt, the most common language around the world. However, we shouldn’t count our dictionaries before their printed, since it’s not the first language to garner such a title and it probably won’t be the last. English, like Latin or Greek or French, will probably not reign supreme forever. Word on the street is Chinese could step up to the plate when English strikes out. Not sure how many strikes its got left, but lets just say it shouldn’t be too cocky at bat. It won’t be the first widespread language to overextend its stay on the plate and wind up back in the bullpen.

To learn English is an all but necessary part of education in most countries, and the teachers in those classrooms aren’t always native speakers from the inner circle (as defined by Kachru), which means the new priority isn’t to find teachers with English as their mother tongue, but to find anyone fluent enough to spread the language to the new generations. Hence, the creation of new Englishes, meaning that non-native speakers are teaching non-native speakers, and these ESL (English as a Second Language) users inevitably create their own breed of nativized English. Look at India. Look at China. Look at parts of Africa. They absorbed English like bread soaks up blood stains, then turned those stains into something useful. English is part of their culture now, if still removed from the lower class, used in government, in trade, in communication and business. But it doesn’t always sound like “inner circle” English because it has been adapted to their culture, stripped apart and rebuilt like an open-source program. It is a tool, like a walking stick on a rough mountain trail or a hammer when you’ve got something to nail, and there are countries out there who have more speakers of nativized English than there are native speakers of English.

Let’s not forget that English is already a mutated hybrid of a half-dozen languages before it. English was once despised and looked down upon. Now, you can take your native English accent and make bank overseas if you play your contract right.

If English continues to spread, and there’s no reason it won’t, then we’ll be as close to a universal language that we’ve ever been. Of the 7 billion on this planet, we’ll still be out of touch with a majority, but less because of the language and more because of physical distance (and the internet has already made that less daunting). We will have the potential to speak with cultures around the world, not without a fair share of code-switching and miscommunication, but we’ll at least be able to communicate. Think of the misunderstandings we could clear up. The compromises we could come to. The beautiful things we could discover once we know how to speak to each other.

I can’t deny that I’m lucky to be a native speaker. It makes my transition into the new world a little easier, since I’m not obligated to learn a new language. That’s not to say I don’t want to learn a new one, and I’ve already got a good amount of Spanish and some Turkish in my repertoire, but my mother tongue is the tongue that this world is craving these days. And this isn’t a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with learning a new language. I wish I could learn them all, collect them up like Pokemon. The brain loves it. The soul grows from it. Your mind expands, your understanding of other cultures increases, and soon you’ll have the option to travel to these new places and speak directly to the locals. How cool is that? Not everyone can do that. I think it’s good to get kids around the world to learn English. They can use it every single day if they’re motivated, and they’ll be happy they learned it when they grow up and recognize the benefits.

When I studied abroad in Istanbul, it blew my mind to make so many international friends who spoke basically perfect English. We communicated with nary a mistake and it rarely crossed my mind that these students were speaking a second (or third) language to me. At the flick of a switch they’d resort to their native tongue to gossip. It was a really inspiring discovery to see how amazing it would be if we all had this potential to share and laugh with each other, but most importantly, learn from each other. Language is how we connect. Language among different cultures is how we battle ignorance and fear, but only if that language crosses borders.

Anyway, I think it’s okay that English is spreading so rapidly. People worry that it will destroy the cultural variety of the world, but I disagree. English isn’t asking people to forget their country and their mother tongue. English says, “Use me. I’m a tool. I’m here to make the world make more sense.” It’s not barging into your house uninvited. It’s not secretly removing your French and Spanish and German vocabulary while you sleep. It’s on your side. It’s aiming to unite the world.