Posts Tagged ‘English’

For some time now, I’ve been a serial language learner. In primary school, my Year 3 teacher spoke Japanese and taught some of it to my class, which we dutifully learned. Hearing of this, my grandmother, who taught Japanese immigrants to speak English after World War II, gave me the books she’d used to study the language herself. In this context, I started taking extra-curricular Japanese lessons. I was not, however, a dedicated student: detesting repetitive practice in the manner of children who otherwise learn so quickly as to find it tiresome, I made no effort to learn my katakana or kanji, and despite the fact that I enjoyed counting and making origami figures, the lessons eventually stopped. My occasional childhood encounters with Japanese culture, however, continued: first in the form of Miyoko Kyushu, an exchange student who stayed with my family for several weeks, and then in the guise of new neighbours, who, though Norweigian by descent, had lived in Japan for many years. All three sons learned the language, while both parents spoke it fluently. Like Miyoko, they kept the Japanese tradition of bringing gifts to one’s hosts, so that when we first met the Johansens at a welcoming-the-neighbours barbeque, the wooden geisha doll, Japanese picture book and hand-sewn juggling balls Miyoko had given me found company with a puzzlingly-shaped Japanese bag and several boxes of sticky (but delicious) Hello Kitty candies. With the exception of these last edible items, I still have everything else. Like my knowledge of Japanese numbers, it seems, they’ve never quite slipped away.

In high school, I learned French and German as part of the school curriculum. Some words from each have stuck with me, such as counting sequences, greetings and a handful of random nouns, although somewhat inexplicably, I’ve also retained a teaching song in French detailing the birthday gifts received by a fictitious singer from his various relatives. Around the same time, I decided that archaeology was my destined career, and was advised that the best languages to learn for this were Latin (for the antiquity) and German (for reasons which now seem both dubious and odd). Given that I went to a public school, such a decision was problematic: with seventeen interested students deemed not enough to sustain a full class, I ended up taking German after school, while for Latin, I was forced to resort to a correspondence course.

When I changed schools the following year, the German didn’t last; but Latin did. I kept it up through all of highschool, even taking advanced Latin units for the HSC despite my appalling grasp of grammar. Once again, my lack of enthusiasm for rote learning saw any chance at fluency well and truly shot, although my pronunciation skills and stock vocabulary were generally on par. By the time university rolled around, my interests had swung from archaeology to the history of the Middle East, such that, rather than continuing Latin, I started learning Arabic instead. I stuck it out for one year, but was still, ultimately, a lazy student: I simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) motivate myself to do the required homework and memorisation necessary for learning a spoken language, despite the fact that learning a new script had proved a sinch – after all, I used to invent alphabets in class when I was bored, memorise them in that hour, then write to myself in that cypher for a day, or a week, or however long it took me to lose interest or start again. But vocal fluency is different. Historically, I’ve been unjustly apathetic in this regard, perhaps because I find it frustrating to have to actually work at acquiring a new language, when in almost every other discipline – the exception being maths, which I’ve never liked – I’m able to osmose comprehension with a comparative lack of effort, especially when interested in the subject. That’s the irony of native intelligence: without a competitive drive, learning becomes purely a matter of convenience. And I’m not a competitive person.

For a while, then, I stopped learning languages – until a few weeks ago, when a friend offered to teach a beginner’s course in Mandarin Chinese. I went to four or five of his classes, and had a good time: if nothing else, I can now count to ten in Mandarin, and at least in the short term, I can recognise certain words and written characters. As with Arabic, however, there’s a strong chance I’ll forget most, if  not all of it, although my track record suggests that if anything stays, it will be the numbers. This might seem paradoxical, given my dislike of maths, but remembering things in sequence is always easier than remembering them individually, at least for me.

Subsequently, since stopping the Mandarin classes, I’ve been thinking about my history with trying and failing to acquire new languages. I like the idea of being bilingual,  but short of actually moving to a non-English-speaking country, could I ever convince myself to put in the required effort? Certainly, I’m more dedicated now than I was then, and more patient; this time around, it was time constraints which caused the change of heart, not lack of interest. Which brings me back to Japanese, the first language I ever tried to learn, and the one which, oddly, I still have the most to do with. Although my foray into learning karate ended several years ago, I still remain extremely interested in anime. Since discovering anime and manga through a friend at the start of high school, I’ve never wavered in my affection for the genre, and although at times it’s been a secondary interest, I’m currently undergoing a surge of renewed fandom. Which makes me realise that, far from having forgotten the little Japanese I learned as a child, I’ve actually built upon it, albeit in a highly specalised area. Thanks to the catchy themes of shows like Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion, I’ve taken the time to write down and memorise the written-English phoenetics to several Japanese songs, learning them by heart. Through comics, interested Googling and contextual exposure, I’ve picked up the various Japanese terms of address, the rules governing their usage, and a smattering of vocab. Cumulatively, this represents the greatest interest I’ve ever directed towards learning a language, despite having nothing to do with academics. And it’s been fun.

All of which leads me to conclude that, if I were to sit down as an adult and properly attempt a language, in my own time and of my own volition, I’d be well advised to try Japanese, coming full circle. And all for the geekiest, laziest possible reason. Which makes me grin.

Ah, irony!

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I was in a fey mood last night, but ‘fey’ didn’t quite seem to cover it. Burdened with the need to update my Facebook status accurately and appropriately, I scanned my knowledge of the English language for a suitable adjective – fruitlessly. Finally, after many minutes of struggle, I put on my thinking boots and invented a new word: mnemencholy, derived from mneme (memory) and melancholy (sadness). Content at last, I slept.

On waking, I discovered that the illustrious Nick Harkaway, that well-known Englishman and little-known lexicographer, had already found my word and proceeded to blog a better definition for mnemencholia than I could possibly articulate. I am therefore stealing it; or rather, approving it for future usage. So, for those who are interested, mnemencholia (from mnemencholy) now officially means:

“Nostalgic sorrow brought on by recollection; melancholia triggered by an object, phrase, or scent and its associated memories; the wide sense of understanding and regret rising from the apprehension of one’s own history.”

Awesome.

I love the idea of neologisms. Above any other quirk, I cherish the malleability of the English language. It rewards linguistic creativity, and, indeed, encourages it. There’s something profoundly satisfying in creating or stumbling on a new term, particularly if we find it clever, or funny, or apt, or (especially) all three. I love that crazy, screwball, onomatopoeic slang like woot and clusterfuck can breed successfully in darkness, like forest mushrooms. I love that Shakespeare has left us with Shylock and seachange; that A. A. Milne gave us heffalump, tigger and wol; that crazy British aristocrats gave us sandwich, sundowner and pukka while equally crazy Londoners gave us yob and Cockney rhyming slang. I love that tactile imagery like whale tail, muffin top and bridezilla made their way to the dictionary, while gribblies, grock and meme are increasingly of the now.

What I don’t like, however, is corporate jargon. I shudder at every mention of swings and roundabouts, blue sky thinking, synergistics, action items or actioning tasks. Some people might (and, indeed, have) called that hypocritical, but the difference is one of joy and functionality. Corporate jargon doesn’t delight in itself. It isn’t clever, nor do buzzwords become popular because people enjoy their use. Rather, they become awkward, mechanical mainstays, often more cumbersome and less helpful than the plain language they replace. Technical jargon, in its proper sense, means words that are part of a specialised vocabularly, as in the medical, legal and IT professions, but this is not true of corporate jargon. It obfuscates, generalises, hinders. Many terms grow, not from playful creativity, but uncorrected malapropisms. Whereas slang is viral in the digital sense, passing rapidly by word of mouth through a series of enthusiastic adapters, corporate jargon is a virus in the medical sense, infiltrating healthy cells and using them to manufacture new infections, which then spread through a mixture of force, proximity and submission. Cliches, at least, began as sturdy concepts: their very effectiveness lead to overfamiliarity, like playing a favourite song so frequently that it becomes unbearable. The best mutate into aphorisms. Not so corporate jargon, which is propagated purely on the basis of necessity, and not effectiveness.   

In short, good language is just another way of thinking clearly, or creatively, or at all. Like all new things, neologisms need to be tested, experimented with, tried on – our choice of slang is just as relevant to our personalities as our taste in clothes, films or music, and yet, quite often, we fail to even make a conscious decision about the words we use, or the circumstances under which we use them. Language, it’s been said, is the most singular achievement of our species, and even without an alphabet, it’s still something unbelievably special.

So don’t take your speech for granted. Read up on collective nouns (they’re pretty awesome); put old words into new contexts; watch Joss Whedon shows; read Scott Westerfeld or Shakespeare or Kaz Cooke or Geoffrey McSkimming or anyone at all; think. But more than that, have fun.

It’s what words are for.

Oh, NSW Board of Studies, hear my plea: stop forcing me to agree with Miranda Devine. The state of your English curriculum is appalling, and you know why? Because it’s not, in fact, an English curriculum, so much as a bastardised, non-historical departure into post-modern wank. Ignoring the hideousness of placing pop songs and advertising on the same cultural footing as Shakespeare, there is nothing elitist in acknowledging that different media are designed for different ends, and while it’s possible to consider a level of ironic social commentary in Britney Speares songs, there’s a point beyond which you cannot go. Unlike Don McLean’s American Pie, with its moving lyrics, musical historicity and devout poetry, Toxic is not attempting to communicate anything below the surface. American Pie is worth studying, not because it’s a song, but because it’s a good song, both in its own right and for the purpose. Toxic isn’t.

Because when you set out to distance yourself from ‘elitism’ and all its permutations, you are intrinsically negating the concept of quality. The argument that all forms are equal is tantamount, in this instance, to saying that all examples of a given form are equal: that there is no innate difference in skill, purpose or structure between Beethoven’s 9th and the Coca Cola jingle. Logically and intuitively, this perception goes against everything we understand about the world. To quote The Incredibles, a useful film for discussing homogeneity vs tall poppy syndrome, calling everyone special is just another way of saying that no-one is. And when you take down the jargon, the oh-so-cringeworthy NewSpeak in which you feel frighteningly compelled to couch your arguments, you are effectively advocating cultural assimilation. If there is no innate difference between the substance of Sylvia Plath and a Mr Sheen add – if you take all the wild, ritous variety of the creative world and declare it to be identical, forcing each vibrant shape into the drab grey monotone of texthood – then it is you, Herr Doktor, who are running the police state, garbing the populace in prison smocks and shaving their obedient, cowering heads.

Board of Studies, some animals are not more equal than others. Power is also a form of elitism, especially if it brooks no argument, and when you actively punish students for disagreeing with the conclusions of the syllabus – regardless of how intelligently dissenters might argue their point – you are placing the highest value, not on critical thinking, but on conformity. Critical thinking: one of the much-touted ‘outcomes’ of HSC English. Now there’s an irony. Herr God, Herr Lucifer: beware, beware. Your brightest students, the ones who care about literature, are the ones disagreeing so vociferously. It shows they’ve been paying attention. They do not like what they see. And neither, by all accounts, do their teachers.

Since completing the NSW HSC in 2003, I’ve been howling into the void about your damn imbecility. I have poured thousands of words, hours of my life, into trying to understand why, despite spending most of Year 12 reading books or writing my own, I came to loathe 2 Unit English with a fiery vengeance. Nobody would listen then, because the views of a mere student and teenager to boot were universally declared to be irrelevant. Nobody listens now, either, because I’m not a teacher, a journalist or a member of the Board of Studies. No – I’m just a literate, eloquent reader who’s been through the system, who’s seen what it looks like from both sides, and has had five years to think about it.

And you know what?

I still think you’re wrong.

In fact, I believe it. Powerfully. Call it a chip on my shoulder, highschool bitterness carried oh-so-unfortunately into adult life, but the gauntlet has been thrown. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair, o Board. And I eat men like air.

Language, it seems, is fickle – or at least, her masters are. Here in the corporate world, an entire new subspecies of wordage has crept, deformed and malignant, into the common parlance: action has become a verb; blue sky thinking has replaced optimism; gamebreaking has replaced ground-breaking, despite the fact that their usage is identical; and the instruction to get across something no longer implies a physical manoeuvre. In highschool, I witnessed a similar phenomenon: knowledge outcomes, learning objectives and – shudder – juxtapositioning came to glisten with a slick, unholy patina from their over-use, misuse and general degradation at the hands of the NSW Board of Studies, so that by the time I entered University, I’d developed a healthy mistrust of official documents.

But jargon, as a concept, is hardly new: bright lads that they are, the world-wide amalgam of medical practitioners cottoned on centuries ago, when some wry descendent of Hippocrates worked out that you could have a different Latin name for each of twenty-six bones in the human foot, and if that name was made up of two words, well! – so much the better. Tradesmen have their own inventive dialouge, as do lawyers, gardeners, soldiers, engineers, computer scientists, regular scientists, mathemeticians, philosophers, psychologists and a wealth of other professionals. For all we might resent being told we have an Oedipus Complex or a ruptured laetissimus dorsi, we don’t object to this type of jargon so much as grumble at the need to have it explained. It would be hard to write a book lamenting that doctors and lawyers are largely unintelligible; but Don Watson has made a pretty penny lambasting the corporate, educational and political spheres for being just that.

And then there is slang. Words like hot and cool, despite being diametric opposites, have come to mean exactly the same thing; but no-one objects. Fluctuating with creative glee, cultural terms like bunnyboiler, whale-tail and muffin-top are happy cornerstones of multi-generational slang, while most families have at least one or two clan-specific terms that are either entirely made up or less widely used elsewhere. My own eccentric kin are particularly good at this: to use a few examples, dub means toilet; tataise indicates a pleasant drive with no planned destination; sneety describes any sleek, pointy, long-nosed dog, such as a Jack Russell, but can also refer to cars, pens and, occasionally, mobile phones; erfs are eggs; a Horace Horse-Collar is any loutish, genially ignorant male youth; turkeys are fools; nadger describes any visible skin complaint; old gougers are old men; and rendezvous is pronounced phoenetically – ren-dez-vus – ever since I tried it out that way at age seven, with hilarious results.

So what’s the difference?

Ultimately, it boils down to our base affection for language. We have no innate objection creating new terms for old concepts, provided we can take pleasure in the task, bending words in clever, funny, outrageous, inventive, ironic or downright incendiary ways. Popular usage filters out terms that don’t quite work, or provides other options where people disagree. Corporate jargon, on the other hand, is largely redundant, taking the place of other terms while being less fun to use. Language is bullied into new forms through a process devoid of creativity; quite often, it results from sheer ignorance as to how the words in question were originally meant to work. Corporate heirachy and protocol then force them into common usage with none of the usual social safeties, such as mocking terms we think are silly, correcting those which are foolish, or altering those with potential. True, this process doesn’t apply to medical or legal jargon, but that’s because those terms aren’t taking the place of anything more natural: they are specific and ultimate, surgical tools for delicate work.

For most people, being forced to use corporate jargon is a kind of cruel and unusual punishment. Imagine going to work one morning to discover that, overnight, your office has adopted a new policy on slang. Funderful has replaced good; jivin’ has replaced cool; and there are lots of fifty year-old white men attempting to call one another bro. The pain of this scenario is utter. My God, you would think, backing slowly towards the door. It’s all so…so…lame.

And you’d be right. For those of my readers who are no longer between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, remember the hideous embarassment you felt whenever a resident adult tried – oh, how they tried – to be hip, latching onto a word or phrase that had either gone out a decade ago or which, because they didn’t appreciate it was only cool when spoken by someone not trying to be cool, made you cringe with horror and check that they hadn’t been overheard, even in your own house. This is the reality of corporate jargon: a bitter combination of middle managers trying with zero success to be funky, idiots on all levels mangling tense, and enough yes-men to perpetuate the crime throughout all departments – yea, throughout the whole company and, verily, even the competition – until we are all ready to implode at the mere thought of human synergistics.

Bunch of turkeys and Horace Horse-Collars, all. Given my druthers, I’d send them home – Jason the Dog – with their hair aflunters.

I found out today that one of my favourite teachers from highschool, Narelle Ward, has died. I’m not sure of the particulars, but I’m sorry that she’s gone. She taught me English in years 11 and 12, a time during which I almost universally lost faith in the idea that NSW schools were capable of teaching English at all, let alone well. Mrs Ward was unique in standing apart from my cynicism: she suffered no fools, had a wicked sharp sense of humour and knew how to use it. While other teachers tried to pussyfoot around the incomprehensible jargon thrown at us by the Board of Studies, she stated frankly that of course it made no sense – but I didn’t write it, don’t blame me – the system had weathered worse before and even if the wording was a load of rubbish, we were still bright enough to dig around and discern what was actually meant. Which, with her help, we were.

When I egotistically complained that a short story I’d entered in a competition probably hadn’t won on the grounds of being fantasy, it was Mrs Ward who tactfully removed the chip from my shoulder, citing chapter and verse on other student sci-fi stories which had won in similar circumstances. ‘It’s not about genre – it just has to be good,’ she said, not as criticism of my writing, but as a reminder that no matter how well I wrote, it was perfectly possible that others could write even better.

Like all the best teachers, she told us stories that had nothing to do with class: about her life, about her family. The first word her twin boys learned from her, she joked, was ‘share!’ . Once, she taught with a young, passionate, red-headed woman, who, in protest at the expected dress code for female teachers, stormed into the headmaster’s office wearing only red high heels, the bottom half of a bikini and a white men’s business shirt – and this was in the seventies. Mrs Ward was one of those rare teachers who not only knew how to discipline the rowdier elements in her classroom, but still be liked. She was fair, fiercely intelligent and believed in her job; because ultimately, she believed in her students.

It’s always hard to tell in retrospect, but I believe she liked me. It’s rare for student and teacher to share any conversation outside class or the hearing of classmates, but from time to time, we did, whether it was walking between buildings or in odd corners of the day. When my short, unassuming, tweed-jacketed Latin teacher was fined for speeding outside the school, I ended up being, via the circuitous route of a strange morning, the first one to tell Mrs Ward the news, having just walked through the tutor’s study and straight into the laughter-filled aftermath of Mr Tate’s confession. The astonished, scandalised and delighted look on her face, coupled with her low-voiced, disbelieving, ‘No-o!’  remains one of my favourite high school memories.

For all of that, I can’t claim to have known Narelle Ward well. But she had an impact on my life, and perhaps – as students somtimes do – I impacted on her, too. I’m sorry that she’s gone, and that I won’t get to see her again at our five year reunion. I’d been looking forward to hearing her jokes and observations, and seeing how she was. Now I won’t. But I can think of her, instead.

Thanks, Mrs Ward. You’ll be missed.

Wikid Cool

Posted: May 28, 2008 in Good News Week
Tags: , , , ,

There’s a tiny, thrilling tingle of vindication in reading that the NSW Board of Studies has given the go-ahead to an HSC English course that studies Wikipedia. Called Global Village, the elective looks at international communication in the age of digital information, and represents exactly where modern English courses should be headed. The road has been rocky and full of murk – my own experiences with HSC English were, shall we say, markedly unhappy – but such commonsense gleams like a light at the end of the tunnel.

The problem with English lessons in the modern era has become one of direction – or rather, lack thereof. Some decades ago, both teachers and administrators began to question the conventional wisdom of teaching Shakespeare because he was, well, Shakespeare, and ever since then, the old lynchpins of English study have been strewn asunder. Despite being a devotee of the Bard, I acknowledge the sense in this: at the same time, uncertainy has undeniably arisen as to what should replace tradition, and (more importantly) why. The loss of grammatical education was the most grevious blow, while boons included the broadening of curricula to encompass film, music, TV, the internet and other such viable media. Much of the confusion, however, seems to have resulted from the question of post-modernism, viz: if anything can be legitimately studied for any reason, then how can the scope be narrowed?

Like an optometrist twirling the dials on some giant eye-checker, the NSW Board of Studies has been fiddling for a correct fit. The Global Village unit makes sense on two levels: it implies a reasonable area of focus, and tackles the problem of students trusting Wikipedia as a primary source. More than anything else, my hope is that the Board will start to require genuinely individual answers of its students, rather than prescribing the direction of their essays. This was the source of my own disappointment: in a course whose outcomes strove for independent research and multiple perspectives, there was precious little room for personal opinion. Ironically, the very breadth of potential study was at fault: the only way to process so many essays using such varied sources was to restrict the conclusions they might draw, and, as a consequence, dilute any prospect of genuinely thoughtful or detailed analysis.  

Ultimately, the goal of highschool English should be threefold: to impart a functional comprehension of the fundaments of language; to foster an appreciation for intelligent media; and to encourage critical thinking. The NSW Board of Studies isn’t quite there, but if courses like Global Village are anything to go by, they’re finally on the right track.