Sometimes, I lose sight of the purpose of language. I think of it as a tool, or something to be studied. I think of it as a trial, or something that others just don’t understand very well – and would they just get on with it because there’s really nothing very difficult about it, for christ’s sake.
Then, they orient me. That’s why I have students: reality check whenever I get too full of myself.
My students are there because they don’t have the language skills to get through an English class. Usually, they just don’t have the language to get through it; it’s a matter of naming the rhetorical devices so they can discuss them.
Of course, working with teenagers, most of them need words to describe sex. We don’t give them these words because we’re of the impression that – even though we all thought about it – our little innocents would never be thinking of such stuff. One student is trying to compare several books to Slaughterhouse Five (and I gave him Brian Francis’ Fruit as an ISU novel, which he’s enjoying immensely) so we talked about homoeroticism. “How’s that different from homosexuality?” Well, it’s more about appreciation for the body than use of the body. “Oh! There’s a word for that?” And I could see the little gears in his brain working it all out. He smiled as though I’d given him a gift.
ESL students need to describe things, too: Johnny Depp’s chest, to be precise. “Barrel-chested?” “No. By no means. You might describe Robin Williams as barrel-chested, but Johnny, well, he’s more fit. Or maybe even ripped.” The next day, her Skype status was “Johnny Depp is ripped.” Fortunately, most of the adults around her don’t speak English well enough to be concerned with this.
My daughter also needed some new words recently. “God, you can tell he’s gay. You wouldn’t call it so easily with the other one, though.” “Dear, that would be top and bottom. No, you cannot decorate our apartment like a beach house.”
One of my students needed a word to deliberately annoy a teacher. “He talks on and on and he’s really boring, and I need to use a word so that he’ll stop boring us.” “Prosaic.” “Yep, that’s the one.” And she felt much better once she had a word to describe him. I didn’t even bother to ask if she used it on him – she just needed to have the word in her arsenal.
These are the kinds of words that need to be given to someone; the kids aren’t likely to Google “a word for Johnny Depp’s chest”. As well, smart phones are ostensibly banned in the schools. The authorities don’t want the students looking up the answers on the internet, much less chatting with each other to share information. But they’ve also chopped the budgets to the point where the schools are still using the same dictionaries that I used in high school. And the book is stored neatly on a shelf by the teacher’s desk, where a student would have to – very obviously – stand up and ask permission to get the book. The students aren’t provided with an up-to-date dictionary for perusing whenever they have a couple of minutes. They’re not given a thesaurus so they can have that perfect word to complete the essay, or perhaps even learn a new word because it’s sitting there right in front of their nose (how do you think I learned prosaic?). Parents are either banning their children from watching TV, or they’re letting them watch really stupid programming that makes limited use of vocabulary. And now the adults are claiming the next generation is ruining the language.
So, wouldn’t it behoove us to help them improve the language? How can we expect them to learn to use the tool if we don’t make it accessible?
My children both like words. My Perfect Nieces and Nephews all like words. If you use a new one (even one of those words which should not be used around Perfect Ones), they’ll try it out. In terms of language acquisition, it’s natural to consistently pick up new words. Those who assume that language acquisition trails off at a certain age, or those who assume an idea will not be thought just because one doesn’t have the language to think it, well, those people need to yank that sheep off their eyes. Newspeak has already been proven to fail.
I consistently learn new words. In fact, just last week I learned one that has solved a 40-year old issue: Sister #2 and her childhood friend both suffer from sophomania. I’m going to make up matching t-shirts for them. Is there a 12-step programme for them, do you think?