Category Archives: English Language

The Forgotten Words of Childhood

This is from the author of Multilingualism ( and Saying It Like It Is (

They grow up so fast….

Yudi's Blog

I was wandering through the library today for English lesson today, and I saw this book called “The Child That Books Built” by Francis Spufford. I flipped through it, and something in it made me have goosebumps to stand on my back.

It was sort of those moments that made me think about my childhood. My mom loved books, and we used to have a room dedicated to books. I loved reading about the grim brother’s stories, and tons of other fairy tales. I have gone through one of the hardest times in my life by reading books after books. Savoring the taste of the first book and diving into the second one without any waste of time.

The book starts off with, ” I can always tell when you’re reading somewhere in the house,” my mother used to say. “There’s a special silence, a reading silence.” I never heard…

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The Hemingway Voice

Activity Being Avoided: the list is almost endless
Music In My Head: Danse Caribe – Andrew Bird
Tea Being Drunk: none.  Yeah, you should make a 911 call.
Book Being Read: Equus – Peter Shaffer

I should not be blogging.  I should be doing one of the thousand other things that’s waiting for my undivided attention.  I should be productive for the thirty minutes before I have to see another student.

Not happening.

One of the other teachers in the ESL school told me about The Hemingway App.  The theory goes that Ernest Hemingway demonstrated the perfect, simple writing voice to which we should all aspire; while that’s certainly up for debate (a very short debate), the app claims to help you keep your writing at the green-zone Grade 7 level.  I snorted.  Then, after I’d wiped my derision off the computer screen, I tossed all thoughts of the app aside.

But we all know that when Sheila gets overly snobby, the universe wet-noodles her across the face.

Enter “David Fry”–so-called because if you put David Foster Wallace and Stephen Fry in a blender and turned it on, you’d pour out this student.  I can’t seem to explain to him that mind-bogglingly complicated is not always the best goal in sentence construction.  While I love reading his essays, a lot of people probably get migraines when the see his name at the top of the page.  My own temples throbbed The Hemingway App to the front of my brain.

“Grade 17,” it said.  “In the flashing neon red zone,” it said.

“Ha!” I said, vindicated by a free app.  (I’m a highly-trained tutor.)  I suggested he get try to get it down to Grade 10.

The lowest he got was (an age-appropriate) Grade 12.  David Fry, you’re the only one wearing a tuxedo in a room full of people in pyjamas.  You got work to do if you can’t write pyjamas.

Following David Fry was Y.W. (“Yeah, whatever”), a Grade 7 student who constantly rides that slippery slope between pyjamas and embarrassingly nekid.  Y.W. couldn’t make it up to Grade 7–and he’s trying to get into a couple of overly-demanding public schools.

The teacher who suggested I check out the app uses it to make sure her selected tests are at a reasonable grade level–which I think is a perfectly acceptable cheat, but not for me.  My distaste for it has to do with unnecessary categorising (why would you look for numbers when you can revel in the words?), as well as a general suspicion of anything that doesn’t like passive voice.  I’m also not a Hemingway fan; if they’d called it The Timothy Findley app, I’d have no problem with it.

(Please note that this blog entry registers as “Good: Grade 7” on The Hemingway App.)





I’m trying to work.  My daughter is sitting in the armchair, bundled in a blanket, with a copy of Calvin and Hobbes open on her lap.  She’s procrastinating dealing with a banking issue.

“Pants,” she says.  “Why do we say ‘pants’ when there’s only one of them?”

(She’s 19, but she can procrastinate with the best of the wee lambs.)

I read her this: Pants.  Sesquiotica is awesome.  Now you, too, can procrastinate.

A Little Knowledge Can Be A Dangerous Thing

Many of my students come to me by word-of-mouth, so their parents know each other. All it takes is one parent with the wherewithal to download a list of classic books and we have a epidemic of ignorance on our hands. Damn The Guardian: it has caused me a great deal of grief over the last three weeks.

Now, as I’m a tutor, it’s a given that the students who come to me aren’t good at English. Most of them don’t like reading, and they certainly don’t get off on words or punctuation. It’s also a given that their parents are of similar mindset, otherwise they wouldn’t be paying me to do a job they were capable of doing for free.

These parents haven’t read any of the classics – at least, not in English. And they’ve only read the ones that have been translated into their own languages because those are the ones that fit in with that language’s culture. Governments and spiritual leaders aren’t known for allowing a banned book to be translated just so everyone can see how sinful it is.

An unabridged Chinese translation of Lolita has only been available within the last few years. The parents in question haven’t read it, yet they want their children to read it because it’s a classic.

They also want their children to read Shakespeare and Austen (*pitooey*). Many of these parents still write their grocery lists in their mother tongues, and it’s somewhat comical to think of them trying to slog their way through, say, the banal dialogue found in Emma. They want the kids to read The Three Musketeers, but when I ask which translation they prefer, they’re not able to specify; apparently, their atheistic children will comprehend the church vs. state conflict in any of the available translations. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, they say, is “educational”; the students, though, don’t have any immediate plans to travel to the bottom of the ocean, nor are they able to make the connection to The Odyssey.

I don’t get it. I’m not a cartographer, but I know that trying to find my way through Toronto using a 200-year-old map won’t get me anywhere. Why would parents think their child, who is getting low grades in school, would learn anything by using resources whose ages are measured in centuries and are from another country?

With bewildered parents, I argue this point long and hard. And then, once we get past the issue of language and its purpose of communication, we get into culture. Should I make sure that the students understand every lewd joke in Romeo and Juliet, and any subtle nuance in Madame Bovary? I want to ask the parents, “Are you sure you want this, you who makes your daughter wear long sleeves and a hijab even in when it’s thirty degrees out, you who signed your son up for Friday night classes so he couldn’t go out partying?” It’s quite tempting to just do what they ask and leave them to deal with the consequences. *sigh* But I don’t. I say, “That book isn’t really appropriate for someone his age.” If we’re dealing with severe language barriers, I haul out Google Translate and make sure the parents understand the relevant nouns and verbs. (I wish I could take a photograph of their reactions, sometimes.)  Then I make lists of things the kids might actually enjoy reading. The parents get frustrated because they don’t know any of these books, because they feel like they have no option but to trust me (and they’re not sure they can, given the loose culture I was raised in). But I can’t do my job if the student doesn’t read, or doesn’t understand what he reads.

Usually, I end up finding a couple of books that the student enjoys, and then we can get on with literary analysis, etc.

Jpod. The kids usually like Jpod: modern language, a profession that makes sense, and an entertaining plot… and swear words that they can understand. They also like Neil Gaiman books – American Gods and Anansi Boys – because the mythology is surreal and therefore fun. They like Fruit because, even if they’re not gay, they know what it’s like to battle against parents and be neurotic about body parts. If they have any familiarity with Indian history, Life of Pi is okay once they get to the Bengal tiger part (but they ignore the beginning and the end ‘cause they’re not really interested in Indian history). They like novellas (Gaze in particular) and other very short things.

This summer, I figure I’ve spent about a third of the average high school tutoring sessions trying to smooth over the problems caused by well-intentioned parents. I now understand why doctors and other professionals despise the internet: it makes their job so much harder.

There’s a Word for It

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?

Losing to Language

Activity Being Procrastinated: nada. For once.
Music In My Head: Flightless Bird, American Mouth – Iron and Wine
Tea: green
Books Being Read: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë (yes, still: I haven’t had much time to read lately.)

Jack Layton died two days ago.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Canadian politics, he was the leader of the New Democratic Party, which is currently the official opposition.  I like the NDP, and I really liked Mr. Layton’s politics.  It’s sad to see him go.  He would have been a great prime minister.  (While the evidence may appear contrary, the one thing we demand of our prime ministers is that they be alive.)

Mr. Layton was very well-spoken (and/or had madly-skilled speech writers), and the legacy of his death seems to be… words.  Lots of words.  He wrote a letter to the people of Canada a couple of days before he died.  It’s not the most creative or poetic thing, but it’s clear and leaves no doubt as to what he had in mind for the country.  (Perhaps he had madly-skilled editors, too?)

This letter has sparked many a debate.  One of the debates that has come up is the terminology used with cancer: is one a “survivor”; can one “lose” or “win” a “battle” with cancer?  Cool.  I love these discussions.  Of course, I’m not going to get into the debate because I don’t have cancer, have never wrangled with it myself, and therefore don’t really have any weight to throw around.  But the weight of the words is enough.  It will be interesting to see if a wanna-be prime minister can change a whole area of language. (It reminds me of one of the times p.c. terminology changed for disabled people, though.  It was… maybe the late ’80s?  Suddenly, no one was “disabled”: they were “challenged”.  Yet one person was overheard to say, “It’s not a ‘challenge’ for me to get up those stairs.  I just can’t do it, no matter how hard I try.  I am ‘disabled’.”  So when people started making fun of the term, using “vertically challenged”, etc. I thought it was one more triumph for the awesomeness of language.  Keep it specific to the individual, dude.  The moment is now.)

Of course, Mnemosyne always has it in for me.  Being brilliant and having the answer to all things language-related, when I first read Bell Hook’s Language of Power, I was struck dumb.  I didn’t know what to think.  She based the essay on Adrienne Rich’s The Burning of Paper instead of Children, particularly around the lines “this is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you”.

The essay made me really upset.

Language has always been my tool – the only tool I wield with any dexterity.  When I’m in the presence of someone who speaks well, I don’t talk because I’m too busy trying to absorb their language.  It’s so freaking cool that this tool can be honed forever and never get to a point where it starts to break down.  I like learning other languages because it makes me feel stronger and more powerful.  It was devastating to discover that someone saw my language, my fortune, as just another part of the weapon.

But we are born into this world naked and crying, and it gets worse from there: I read Rich’s poem.

burn the texts said Artaud” – well, you know how I feel about book burnings: it’s equivalent to murder, but it’s not going to stop anything.

“A language is a map of our failures.” – seems cynical; why can’t she see the silver lining? Was it our language or our bodies that beat that out of her?

“The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language. “ – just kill me now.

Sometimes there’s a point where the tool gets too heavy to manipulate.  (I suppose that’s when it becomes a weapon.)  For a while, I can’t look at a simple word or phrase and not see all the facets: does everyone with cancer actually “fight a battle”?  Does being a “survivor” or a “victim” really imply that you could have done something differently?  Does being “disabled” mean you’re lazy in the face of a challenge?  Is an entire language corrupt just because a tyrant used it before you did?  Am I really using this tool as well as I think I do?

Any philosopher who looks at this blog will snort with laughter, I’m sure: you’re using language to discuss language?  Fret not, the irony has hit as hard as Rich’s poem did.

But irony is what sets humans apart from other animals.  Without irony, of course, a man’s death would have been nothing more than a man’s death.

Are You Attributing Tone, Sheila?

Huh.  Funny dude.  I would never attribute tone, particularly in the case of sports.

Yes, I was discussing sports.  No, no, it’s okay, Mum: it was in the context of writing.  No need for the cardiac arrest.

The conversation went something like this (we were talking about the fliers for the upcoming reading):

Anonymous Sports Writer: I’m tempted to irritate Philadelphia fans this season by referring to them as the Fliers.  But using that term actually lends the team more, not less, dignity.  Because Flier is the major domo term, really. According to those that ought to know.  You know.  Of course you know.

Me: Like I’d know a ******** thing about naming a sports team. :p  I’m only guessing it’s a sports team ’cause you’re talking about it.

ASW: You have retained enough to **** with the jersey-wearers.

Me: You say “jersey-wearers” like it’s a species of sub-primordial slime.

ASP: Are you attributing tone, Sheila?

Me: Never.  Was assuming, based on your noun-creation.

It’s true… okay, maybe I attributed a little of my affection for sports, but mostly it’s because he was messing with the language.  Certainly, in my family, the English language was sacred when one was being serious.  For instance, I was never told to stop fighting with my sisters in any other terms than “stop fighting with your sisters”.  However, if I was being told to, say, clean something (cleaning was a fairly inconsequential activity in our house), the terminology might include archaic words like bathe or cleanse or dampen followed by thyself or thine pigsty of a room.  Accents and dialects were also thrown around: worsh them dishes, if’n you pleases.  If the language was messed-with, you knew you had a little leeway; if not, you’d best hop to it.

The activity of verbing – or, in my friend’s case, nouning – makes me laugh.  Literally.  I assume that people who use the term referencing must be making a joke.  ‘Cause if you weren’t joking, you’d speak in a commonly understood manner, no?  Or, perhaps you were serious in that you didn’t want me to listen to the rest of your sentence, but instead wanted me to tune you out while I deliberate your meaning: make reference to, or refer to?

Okay, I can tune you out, no problem.

Last night, I bought a copy of (yes, I know, 20 years too late) Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue.  I’m thinking, as I read about etymology and pidgin and creole languages, that this is all fine but what about the recipient?  Use any word you like, but there’s no guarantee the other person is going to understand you.  Maybe they don’t speak your language, or maybe they’re deaf, or maybe they have some cognitive processing difficulty, or maybe they’re just stupid.

Or maybe they come from a sports-deprived culture where jersey-wearer must be an insult, ’cause no sane person would wear a sports jersey.

‘Cepting, of course, a van Persie jersey during the World Cup.  That’s different.  He’s Dutch.

Language is awesome.  But so are all the other methods of communication, the ones we don’t really acknowledge.  And the perspectives on communication.  I can never be sure how someone is going to relate to my writing, because I don’t know every aspect of every person from their birth.  Will their loathing of the word loathe attribute tone?  Will their devoutly atheistic upbringing make them bristle at “Oh, my god”?  Will someone fall in love with one of my characters who bears the same name as the reader’s first True Crush?

It happens.