Monday, September 26, 2005

When are the new language models coming out?

Why is it that we say the "alarm went off" when what we mean is that the alarm went on? There are lots of illogical facets of English, as there are illogical facets of French. (For example the noun "vagina" is masculine.)

One of the biggest challenges teaching English as a second language is to get around these roadblocks of "doesn't make sense". Or the transitive/intransitive meanings of verbs as in "I'm taking off now," and "I'm taking off my shoes now" describing completely different actions.

There are many logical parts of the language, but since it was cobbled together from other languages, you can never say "this is a rule" because there are invariably instances where the rule is broken.

Sometimes I have students who resist grammar. They resist it in their mother tongue, and consequently resist it when they learn a second language. They want to intuitively absorb it like they did when they were kids. Unfortunately, your brain is only wired to do it that way as a kid; as an adult, it's important to understand why you are saying what you are saying. In our mother tongue, we can usually be accurate just by checking in our heads if it "sounds" right.

I often tell my students, "I know it's crazy, and it doesn't make sense, but I didn't create the language, I just teach it. I understand your resistance, but that's the way it is." And then I give them an anecdote about my experience learning French, to show them how I felt the same resistance to some fucked up part of French. (Don't get me started on the subjunctive conjugations.)

The scary part of all of this, is that we "think" using these languages that don't always follow a special structure, that are full of idiomatic expressions. (How does it make sense to say, "I was had!" when you are the victim of swindling?)

We have to think using language, but it's like having to cook using a butane lighter. If language is the tool for thinking, I'm looking for a better model.

9 comments:

Christian said...

Amen, brotha. If you haven't read Lynn Trusse's "Eats Shoots and Leaves" yet, I highly recommend it. It's a humorous and educational look at the english language, such as it is...

St. Dickeybird said...

And that's why English is the hardest language to learn if it's not your first.
That's also why we take English in school, even though we're fluent in it already.

The Wisdom of Wislon said...

My other half Culfy is also an English teacher-he was telling his family about a Polish guy who said "He gets off with his brother alot." instead of gets on with .... oh joy I'll be getting my knickers in a twist soon over English..eeeekkk!

tornwordo said...

LMAO Goldie!

_Psycho said...

townwordo, not sure if you ever did, but maybe you should make a post why you moved up north, in a french canadian place from cali ? Im curious.

Em said...

Really? No way to intuitively learn a langauge in adulthood? Sadness.

Adam said...

I work with many foreigners, mostly French people, and I am always having to explain english idioms to them. For example a colleague of mine asked me why the movie "Wedding Crashers" is called "Wedding Crashers." He had looked up the word crash and he was dumbfounded at the title. English is enigmatic to the core!

P.S. Just found your blog, i enjoy it greatly. I love that you have Hannah and Her Sisters (the best woody allen film) and David Sedaris in your profile.

Rebekah said...

When I was teaching English in Japan, and these questions would come up, I had two responses:
"English is a craaaaa-zee language" and "I don't know why that word/sentence/idiom is like that. It's custom."

Of course, I was much younger then, and my students were between 12 and 16. They didn't push me too hard.

One of the best sentences a student wrote was about a day at the beach:
"She was spread by the lifeguard. The suntan lotion stopped her from sunburn."

Oh, I had a hard time explaining why that just didn't sound right.

anabel said...

Spelling in English is the same. Why the whole "ph" and "kn" thing? I also have to tell my daughter (dotter) "Sorry, I didn't have a say in this."

While we're at it, what sadistic creature invented the word "lisp"