Category Archives: English Language

Vocabulary 101

Activity Being Avoided: Lesson prep for the week
Music In My Head: Highway – David Francey
Tea Being Drunk: I can’t get any tea because I’m lying on my stomach and there’s a cat sleeping on my back
Books Being Read: Mama’s Boy — David Goudreault, Her Body and Other Parties — Carmen Maria Machado

When I was a child–about six or seven years old–my sister and I were in the back seat of the car, insulting each other.

“You’re despicable!”

“No, you’re despicable!”

“You’re despicabler!”

My parents were ignoring us; my uncle, whom we had just picked up at the airport, (I assume our performance was for him) had one eyebrow raised.

“Do you two know what that word means?”

“Yep! It means you’re pregnant!” (My sister would have been four or five.)

“It means you’re really bad. But we can say that word and Mum doesn’t get mad.”

Where had such young children learned that word? From Daffy Duck, of course. He said it to Bugs Bunny all the time. It was a great word that came with an optional saliva-spraying lisp.

I think about situations like this when I get a new student. New students are always asked why they think they need an English tutor. The answer invariably involves some variant of “I want to improve my vocabulary”. They have lists of SAT words and vocabulary workbooks. They set goals such as learning 100 new words per week.

I didn’t have SAT word lists or vocabulary workbooks when I was growing up. I had the illicit Batman TV show that we watched at a friend’s house, during which the Joker taught me “Foiled again!” and “You have thwarted my nefarious plans for the last time!” I had Rudyard Kipling and his ‘Stute Fish. I had Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things that gnashed their teeth.

I had a mother who, when I didn’t like dinner or my sisters or the way my life was going, asked, “Are you being persecuted?” If I answered, “Yes”, her retort would be something about it putting carbuncles on my soul.

I had a father who said, “That’s ludicrous!” rather than “You stupid child, what were you thinking?”

As Albert Cullum points out in Push Back the Desks, children in Kindergarten pick up on the language that’s fed to them. If you drop a sheet over your head and say, “I’m a friendly apparition”, they’ll make the ghost connection in a couple of minutes. If you flap your arms and say, “Pinions”, they know what you’re talking about. The concept of waiting until a child is “old enough” before we speak to them in an intelligent manner is particularly short-sighted.

Growing up, there were people I would purposefully listen to because I admired their linguistic skills. When I ask my students whose vocabulary they admire, I’m met with blank stares.

What goes in, comes out.

Sometimes I get a student who clicks right away, and they’re able to focus on the best voices available to them. Their vocabulary improves within six months or so.

Other students are convinced that word lists are still the way to go. They remember the words for a couple of weeks, and then the words are gone. I have the students read Calvin and Hobbes comics, and watch Corner Gas and Brit-coms. Eventually, they might see the light and embrace Stephen Fry as their linguistic deity, but we’ve lost valuable time.

We want our children to be “above average”, but we only give them access to mediocrity. It seems to me that in our crusade to make children’s culture entirely educational, positive and uniform, we’ve forgotten to include versatile language.

 

 

In Defense of Semi-Colons and Other Ornaments

Activity Being Avoided: Life. I’m campaigning for aestivation.
Music In My Head: Cowboy Romance – Natalie Merchant
Tea Being Drunk: cold mint tea with a little lemon
Books Being Read: Margery Kempe – Robert Gluck, Ragged Company – Richard Wagamese

I found this: On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

My initial reaction to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote is “What an arrogant little…”. Those of you who have read this blog know that I’m in favour of pretty things like semi-colons and em dashes, and I only despise the clutter of serial commas because they encourage reading without thinking. You’ll also know that I believe a competent writer should be able to work within the full pyjama-tuxedo range.

Yes, one should be able to write a simple Vonnegut sentence, sans semi-colon. One should also be able to flutter Virginia Woolf’s heart with cleaved clauses.

A Vonnegut sentence (from Slaughterhouse Five–and please ignore the modifier problem): “Billy sat up in bed. He had no idea what year it was or what planet he was on. Whatever the planet’s name was, it was cold.”

A Woolf sentence (from A Room of One’s Own): “The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light.”

Now, it’s not easy to write au Vonnegut. As with anything else, simple writing requires attention and practise. It’s even more difficult, however, to write a complicated sentence, to learn to use punctuation–no, to wield it as a chef’s knife–to create the lily and gild it.

Why bother? Why not keep it simple?

Humans don’t always like simple. We like art; we like pretty things; we laud the complex and ornate. While we might take a calming breath in the face of Japanese minimalism, the Sistine chapel receives gasps of admiration.

Each person should have the choice of eliciting breaths or gasps.

If we’re going to force “education” down every callow gullet, there should be a broad purpose to it. There is no purpose to analysing Shakespeare; there is great purpose to being a competent writer. If we spent less time analysing literature and more time honing writing styles, communication would become the most important thing in our society. With communication comes learning and understanding. With communication comes coherence.

We can’t all be the same, but we can learn to communicate with each other. We can also make our existence pretty–because there’s nothing wrong with something being embellished.

 

Holy Literary Quartet

An announcement:

I have found a writer who is, as of this writing, infallible. She is sufficiently infallible that The Holy Literary Trinity has now been up graded to a quartet.

This newest deity is Sara Baume.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baume is a master at writing sentences that make me stop and re-read them–sentences that make my insides feel all warm and happy.

Samples from the beginning of each book:

  • I’m on my way to purchase a box-load of incandescent bulbs because I can’t bear the dimness of the energy savers, how they hesitate at first and then build to a parasitic humming so soft it hoaxes me into thinking some part of my inner ear has cracked, or some vital vessel of my frontal lobe. (Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither)
  • The white strata are bunching into clouds. The bunches are competing with each other to imitate animals. A sheep, a platypus, a sheep, a tortoise. A sheep, a sheep, a sheep. (A Line Made by Walking)

She doesn’t lose control throughout the books. Right to the end of both, I had to stop to admire the writing style. There are no flat characters. There is nothing to suggest that the book has been edited for common consumers.

There is only good writing.

Ms. Baume, allow me to add this reminder that your new status doesn’t demand infinite infallibility. I permit my divine beings one literary catastrophe each, so don’t feel you’re under too much pressure. I am a compassionate devotee.

The Forgotten Words of Childhood

This is from the author of Multilingualism (https://sheilavdhc.com/2014/01/10/chicken-soul-soup-multilingualism/) and Saying It Like It Is (https://sheilavdhc.com/2013/11/08/chicken-soul-soup-saying-it/).

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.)

 

 

 

Pants

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.