Monday, May 25, 2009

In the beginning was the word...

Language fills me with joy. There's nothing I won't say, or write, or talk about. As an English language teacher, I actually feel that it's really important to talk to kids about all the words in English, whether we consider those words to be good or bad, so they know that "shit for brains" is not a good thing to call your boss. (I have a couple of stories about when I was learning French, and kind people took the time to explain that what I thought was a gentle tease was in fact quite offensive - I'm glad they did and I think of myself as returning the favour.)

We have even had something similar to this conversation, about all the various permutations of that most unsayable of words.

I just started reading Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels among threatened languages, which is enlightening in the extreme. I am privileged to be a native speaker of the world's most prevalent and powerful language, and nothing makes me appreciate that more than reading about places where language - the one thing that makes us truly human by connecting us to our past and our culture, who we are at the deepest level - is disappearing.

Here's one of the things Abley says that has really made me think:

"Yabbering" and "jabbering" are interesting words. They show up all over the English-speaking world whenever a speaker feels like sneering at animals or a minority people. Look up "jabber" in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you'll find quotations in which the term applies to monkeys, Flemish servants, seabirds, and Jews. It often betrays contempt, the dictionary observes, for "the speaking of a language which is unintelligible to the hearer."

My ESL students talk among themselves in their own languages all the time. I want them to speak English in class, but I have explicitly told them (and their parents as well, through interpreters if necessary) that speaking one's native language at home, as much as possible, is absolutely crucial. Your first language is your foundation, I say, and if your mother tongue corrodes then you can't build anything strong on that foundation.

I've sometimes thought of that Babel of languages in my classroom as jabber, but never, I hope, in a derogatory way. Reading this book, however, is making me think about all the ways in which we use language as a tool for power. As the teacher, I already have a lot of power. Taking away a student's expression, by calling it by the same word as we would historically use for an animal or someone who is below us in every way, is a terrible thing to do. I don't want to become one of those crazy politically correct people who discuss "person holes" rather than "manholes" and other linguistic monstrosities, but if language is our greatest tool and our most fearsome weapon, then we need to treat it with respect.

So at the end of the day, I don't think I'll be saying "jabber" again really soon. (Unless I should encounter a Flemish servant in my daily life; then, of course, we'll have to see.)

PS. This is another fun video, on the joys of swearing, which I heartily endorse. Cause it's British and Brits make me laugh.

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