Thursday, December 23, 2010

English and How it Doesn't Make Sense.

Teaching English has made me realize a lot of things I never knew about the words I speak every day. Like how the word 'vacation' sounds a lot like the word 'bacon' (or at least it does the way Korean people say it). This, of course, was not something I realized on my own, but with the help of Justin, one of my more annoying students. He then proceeded to give me bacon-related answers to all the questions I asked him the rest of class. ('Justin, what do you use a jail for?' 'To keep the bacon when you are afraid someone will steal it'; 'Justin, why do you think the people ran from the volcano?' 'Because they missed their bacon, teacher').

There are other, more difficult things to try to explain. The word 'sure', for instance, not only has a confusing pronunciation, but several meanings. There are times when you use it to mean the affirmative (“Sure, you can have a cookie”), and times you use it when you are certain (“are you sure?”). Americans also tend to use the word when answering in the affirmative but they don’t really mean it (“You did walk the dog, right?” “Sure….”).

There are words that can be used in different situations to mean different things. For instance, ‘wake’, which can mean the trail a boat left in the water, the party before a funeral (so-named because you were waiting for the deceased to 'wake' in case they were just sleeping off inebriation), the action of coming out of sleep, or the action of pulling someone out of sleep. Harder still is ‘wax’. The moon can wax, but so can a woman with harry legs. A surfer can wax their surfboard or their car, but not in the same way as harry women can wax; and a person could wax eloquent on any number of topics.

‘Flag’ is another one. You can flag someone down, or flag at the end of a race, or flag could just mean a sheet of cloth that represents your country.

Even harder still are words with subtle differences. Have you ever tried explaining the difference between crumbled, crushed, and squashed to a non-English speaker? What about the difference between glow, shine, or twinkle? Tripped and stumbled? Nervous and worried? Holiday and vacation? How would you explain what an idea is? Or embarrassment? Or a hero? Obviously, you know what all these things mean, but how would you explain it?

Did you know that, despite the fact that ‘fish’ is an uncountable noun (you use the same word for both plural and singular, like ‘sheep’), it is still technically correct to say ‘fishes’ when referring to many different types of fish? Ex: There are many fish in the sea, but there are also many different kinds of fishes. There are also things that non-native speakers would find it impossible to know. Like that ‘doggie’ doesn’t necessarily refer to a puppy, but is a name children use for dogs. The same with ‘bunny’, which doesn’t, in fact, refer to a baby rabbit, but is what babies use to refer to rabbits.

Why is there an ‘r’ in Mrs.? Why is there an ‘o’ in ‘won’t’ (because it is a contraction of 'will not' with the apostrophe representing the missing 'o')? Why can you pronounce the word ‘a’ like ‘ay’ or ‘uh’ but the word ‘as’ is always pronounced one way?

Then, there’s a whole lot of difference between the way Americans speak and the way British people speak. There are even words that are equally intelligible to both parties, but aren’t often used by them. ‘Brilliant’ and ‘horrid’ being words more often used by Brits.

Today, I had to explain to my students the difference between ‘st.’ and ‘dr.’ when they come before a name and when they come after. When ‘dr.’ comes before a name, it means ‘Doctor’ and after it means ‘drive’. An ‘st.’ before inevitable means ‘saint’ while after would mean ‘street’.

How does anyone learn English?

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