By Alleen VanBebber, Literacy Kansas City Board Member
Remember when your baby (or friend’s baby or baby brother) began speaking in phrases and how much the little guy seemed to enjoy it? He didn’t know he was entering a verbal jungle, by being born a native English speaker. He didn’t know he was doing something hard as he began making sense of words and sentences. He learned how to converse by just listening. He didn’t have to know or care why cyclists ride bicycles and bikers ride motorcycles. It didn’t worry him that “He” put his shoes on, but “She” didn’t put shis shoes on. Or why there were houses, but house rodents weren’t mouses. He might have thought it odd that two cows were cows, while two sheeps were sheep, but he learned early which to say and not be laughed at or be corrected.I’m in awe of LKC students who tackle learning English as a second language. They arrive as adults who have mastered their own language systems, with rules and customs that are second nature to them. They don’t expect to be hit with a convoluted, arbitrary system that defies any rational explanation, more often than not. Don’t we tell them to add up numbers by reading them down the row? Imagine if the actual rules of mathematics were as subject to inexplicable whim as are our instructions for using those rules.
And it’s not just those who grew up speaking Spanish, or French, or Tagalog who can stumble. It’s even tricky for those who speak non-American English. For example, we Americans use “bloody” as a harmless euphemism for epithets we can’t say in polite company: as in “he doesn’t have a bloody clue.” Watch the room chill if you use that word in a formal setting in England or Ireland. But, since our Founders decided against having a monarchy, we at least don’t have to explain why there are kingdoms but no queendoms!
Many students hate punctuation even worse than the other frustrations of learning English. Some want to bypass the agony by ignoring punctuation altogether—who cares about commas, as long as the words make sense? But there is a major culinary distinction between “Let’s eat, Grandma,” and “Let’s eat Grandma,” now isn’t there?
As a high school teacher, I used to read essays from native speakers containing malapropisms, misspellings, and other—sometimes, Freudian—mishaps that made me laugh so hard I snorted Coke out my nose. No, strike that comment: talking today about snorting coke could get your phone tapped. Pity the person who tries to master American idioms and cultural references by reading books written before 1980. Our ever-changing idioms aren’t even common to a region, let alone a continent. In short, hats off to our adult English as a second language learners. They have it tough, and that’s for sure, dude.
For more on this topic, take a look at Crazy English, by Richard Lederer, and Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss. They are both fun and educational.