When I listen to American actresses in tv series, I get a little jealous of their sound. They manage to speak with a much lower voice than I normally do and they make words sound so smooth. It sounds great how they link words together! (And confuse Dutch learners of English when they read it, unfortunately. So I won’t wanne write like that.) Bud yewanna taak laigue dis? I no I wanne be ablede!
They never sound tired and I bet they don’t have a sore throat after speaking loudly for a long time. My theory is that their language and accent forces them to do what speech therapists teach you. You know, when you need to learn a better speaking technique because are in danger of damaging your vocal cords. What they teach is how to use the front of your mouth and make the sounds resonate.
Well, Dutch has many sounds that are made in the back of the mouth. That’s much more difficult and tires the voice. What we need to do is learn English and learn from making the sounds of English to rejuvenate our voices!
English as botox for the voice. And why not? I see more and more adults who wear braces to change the shape if their teeth. That’s a lot of hassle for a better look. And what about this thing I still can’t believe happens in this country: young girls without real wrinkles use botox! They say they want to be prepared so that if their skin gets older the muscles that are paralysed by the botox can’t cause wrinkles. It’s not that they spend hundreds of euros on this I can’t grasp, it’s the idea that you pay to put poison in your face. And that those shiny faces look so unnatural.
Com to think of it. English isn’t botox for the voice. You won’t begin to sound like a robot or something. If you learn to speak English well and you use the extra flexibility of your muscles that comes with it to take care of your voice more, English is a series of good yoga lessons. Yea! Datzid! Waydego!
Yesterday my 18 month old daughter kept on saying the Dutch word for refrigerator, over and over again. She was not near a refrigerator at all. I was changing her diaper. It was funny to hear her going on about something she had learned a while ago. Apparently she thought it was time to practice the word. The more I thought about it the more it made sense. That’s how you learn a language. Practice a word, wherever, whenever. Whenever you are having a chat, throw in a word you have never used before. And when the occasion doesn’t arise soon enough, forget about making sense and surprise your unsuspecting listener with it.
As an English teacher I was often such a victim of surprise words that didn’t make sense. It happened regularly when I read reports from students. It was my own fault, really. I gave them a new word every week that I picked out especially to talk about. Some students would go out of their way to use that word in the next reflective report they wrote. No matter whether it would be appropriate or not.
One student, for instance, described her learning process during a project as a case of ‘serendipity’. She didn’t really show she knew what it meant. But it was a pleasant surprise to find one of my favourite words in her writing.
I taught that word with as much enthusiasm as I could muster because I just find it is so beautiful. It is a pity we can’t use it very often in everyday life. Maybe if we use it more often even when it isn’t appropriate we will have more cases of serendipity. And then even the process of learning new words will be like serendipity. To be lucky to find valuable or pleasant things that you were not looking for.
I am binge watching a French detective series. My French is coming back to me from far away, out of hibernation. Suddenly I find myself speaking beautiful French sentences into the mirror as if I have a new secret, invisible lover. I love to hear myself make those sounds, so fast, so nonchalant, so interesting. What a beautiful language and what a miracle I can pretend I am French, even if it is only in the privacy of my bathroom!
Language learning can be so enjoyable if you know how to have fun in the process. Watching TV series will do it for me. What seems like a boring, couch potato, and therefore braindead-like activity is really the equivalent to going to evening class and being a dedicated student, in the front row, with all the homework neatly done, questions at the ready and an apple for the teacher in your home knitted bag.
Why do we think the best way to learn is to study hard? If you are really clever you find a way to swap the word ‘hard’ for ‘fun’. I imagine there are loads of Dutch people sitting at home, on the couch, watching TV, who feel guilty because they should be brushing up their English. They would love to impress their customers with an eloquent reply to the usual questions. But they can’t do it tonight. It’s too hard.
Well, just stop wishing and stay on that couch. Put yourself on a diet of as many episodes of “Miranda” as you can fit into your evening. Then, when you go to bed, brush your teeth, look in the mirror and pull the face Miranda’s mother always pulls when she dashes into Miranda’s shop. Now briskly utter the phrase: “Such Fun!” 10 times. For desert you can book a few conversation lessons with me in which you help me remember in which episode Gary and Miranda finally hit it off. There you go, couch potato, your English will be as good as new! If you pass the final test (by singing like Stevie doing an impression of Heather Small: “What have you done today to make you feel proud?”) I will treat you to some of my sexiest French. I will whisper into your ear what happened to Sandra in ‘Witnesses’ ( ‘Les Témoins’ in French) when she decided to chase that killer all by herself…..
The word deer comes from the Dutch word ‘dier’ and that means animal. I will always remember that and I like that I know this so much that I keep teaching the word deer even when it isn’t relevant and I always add the etymological information. I worry sometimes if this is such a good idea. But that is only because very few students show a slight twinkling of interest in this bit of gratuitous information. (I learned to use ‘gratuitous’ when I looked up ‘gratuit’. In Dutch it has a very special, negative meaning that is different from the standard, original French meaning.) Most students disregard it as being another bit of information that they can do without. It won’t be in a test, no one needs to know the history of a word to be able to use it, why bother the grey cells?
Well, I’ll tell you why, dear language learner, the grey cells will make more connections, languages are connected and the more a word has connections to other words the better you will remember it. It might feel like you are making a detour and it is not efficient but that’s not how my brain feels about it. It doesn’t like drilling exercises. It likes associations.
We sing: “Doe, a deer, a female deer”. Did you know a doe can also be a goat? But the male of a deer, a stag, is only used for deer. That comes from ‘to sting’. In old Norse, however, it was used for more male animals than just deer. When it’s dead it becomes venison, that’s French, much more sophisticated because the rich eat it and they use their own language. In French, or Latin, it becomes any animal that is hunted. In Southern Africa venison means meat of an antelope. That is a nice animal in Dutch. An animal that is anti (against) ‘lopen’, which means to walk. But that’s not etymology, that’s just a silly joke.
While waiting for the elevator in a university building in Amsterdam I noticed something odd on the sign next to the elevator button. Next to the information about what department was on which floor the numbers of the floors were written as numbers twice. There was an 8 and next to that it said ‘8RD’. Sometimes It said ‘RD’ and sometimes ‘ND’ but never ‘TH’ and never in the way you would expect it: 8th (like this). I couldn’t believe it. Was this the English version of the floor numbering? Mistakes like that on a sign for everyone to see? It must be my mistake. I felt embarrassed to even be confused. I looked again to see if the letters might mean something else like the names of rooms or wings on each floor but that would have been even more odd and mysterious.
I wanted to laugh, ask someone whether they knew about this massive cock up, but I was a first time guest here, it felt rude to do that. So I kept looking at the sign in disbelieve and I started wondering why it stirred so much in me. It was a mind gobbling experience. The surprise at discovering such a basic mistake was mixed with embarrassment and shame of being Dutch. It was a feeling that took me longer than the elevator ride to shake off.
I guess the key to my state of shock is the element of authority. This building was a place for higher education. It was a place of knowledge and it was hard to believe that at some point someone who works there must at least have seen this sign, even if they didn’t write it, and apparently didn’t have this basic knowledge of English to see the mistakes. It felt like nothing was certain anymore.
When I taught 13 year olds at a secondary school, at the beginning of the year, I could measure my level of authority as a teacher by their reaction when they discovered I had made a mistake. They were really shocked. I would pretend to be really embarrassed and I deliberately didn’t do what I wanted to do, ignore that shockwave going through the classroom. That level of authority never lasts long at a school. Sooner or later pupils find out you are human. But I believe you need to take these moments seriously. These pupils need to find out that I know what I’m talking about even when I sometimes doubt something I’ve just said. Not everything that seems a mistake is one. Language is fluent and words have more than one meaning or even spelling. They should always be open minded and be ready to be as mind gobbled as I was when staring at that elevator sign.
I loved learning English through songs and I now love teaching English with songs. I have yet to meet the first person who says it is not helpful and fun to use songs when learning a language. It’s a great way to memorize words and phrases and to learn pronunciation. A song is also a short story and while you listen you are supposed to understand that story in the lyrics and understand what the singer is singing.
Those two things often go together but not all the time. I used to think that Kate Bush sang, ‘He’s here, Cathy’ in Wuthering Heights. And I had no idea who this man was and where ‘here’ was. It didn’t become much more clear when I knew the lyrics and the line turned out to be, ‘It’s me, Cathy’. But that’s because I had not read the book yet.
Looking back I think it was quite an accomplishment that I had made up a phrase that actually made sense grammatically. I managed to hear something that was English, just not what Kate Bush had wanted me to hear. Now that I listen to songs with my student who is a real beginner I wonder how well I understood English when I misheard this line. My student really only understands a few words of a song and if she doesn’t know a word she makes one up. But unlike my strategy she just throws in anything that sounds like it could be right, regardless of whether it fits grammatically. It makes for a new learning style that I can only admire.
Last week I made an gap fill exercise with a song by Ariana Grande called ‘One last time’. The sentence was: ‘I know I don't deserve it but stay with me a ……….’, and the answer was ‘minute’. She came up with something that didn’t make sense to me at all. It sounded like ’made eat’. My first reaction was to try and explain to her that in this place in the sentence we need a noun and not something that sounds like a verb. But then I knew she didn’t mean to make up a new word and didn’t think in terms of nouns or verbs, she just repeated what she had heard and didn’t care whether it was a word she knew or not. Her strategy is very different from mine. As a girl I just imagined I knew what a song was about and made up a text that seemed to fit, a little. My student doesn’t imagine much, she just listens. I think that’s very nice. Just let the strange sounds come to you!
If you do it right you can even hear Dutch words in English songs and hear Michael Jackson sing ‘mama se mama sa mama appelsap’ in Wanne Be Startin’ Somethin’. I think some examples of ‘mama appelsap’ people have found are hilarious. I love that bit in the Dutch talk show ‘De wereld draait door’. I wish I could find a mama appelsap (apple juice) in every song. Many songs can do with a little juice anyway.
When I was a child I believed my dolls would come alive at night and talk to each other. I imagined they would complain about the way they had been treated by me, or not, depending on how well I had taken care of them. My parents thought it was funny but a bit strange for a child past the age of 4. Even now I think it’s perfectly normal to believe that some objects have some sort of life and a soul. I don’t think I can go as far as to say I am a follower of Animism, it’s not a religion, but it is part of me and of my language. Yes, it’s in the way I think and in the way I like to speak.
Now, here’s the rub. It’s fine if you speak Dutch to refer to objects using ‘he’ or ‘she’, but in English that’s just not done. Everything that is not a person or an animal is a cold, neuter, blank, boring ‘it’. Of course there are exceptions, like using ‘she’ when you refer to a ship, but I hear even that is disappearing. The English speakers stopped using gender distinctions for objects hundreds of years ago and they are still in the process of eliminating them from the language. It’s like killing weeds. Unnecessary elements are exterminated.
When I was learning English this never bothered me. I was too determined to get it right so I never made the mistake of saying: “Oh, no! I forgot to charge my phone and now his battery is almost dead!” I knew that although batteries can die in English they are not treated like people and neither are phones. Your phone maybe closer to you than some of your friends but it is still an ‘it’. But now that I am teaching Dutch people English I don’t have the same determination. I don’t like to teach people to stop thinking about objects as a possible ‘he’ or ‘she’. It goes deeper than just applying a grammar rule or not. It’s about your view of the world. My phone is dear to me and he deserves to be treated with respect. Referring to him as ‘it’ just doesn’t feel right. When I speak or write English I can’t express that I think of my phone as more than just an inanimate thing. It’s as if I have to hide that part of me in order to blend in.
I’ve learned to do that long ago but I don’t want to be the one to tell my students to do it. They may never have believed their dolls had feelings but at least they said ‘he’ or ‘she’ when talking about them and there’s nothing wrong with that.
‘Leave your child wagon here’ I read in the hallway at the parent-child-center. Child wagon? Yes, the Dutch word was the same word, literally, child and wagon so I knew there could only be one meaning: ‘pram’ or if you don’t like British English: ‘buggy’ or ‘stroller’. There are lots of words available depending on taste and whether the child lies down or sits, but ‘child wagon’ is not one of them as far as I know. I even saw that ‘baby wagon’ is a word. It looks strange to me, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be right. ‘Child wagon’ may sound just as unusual, but it is not strange, it is simply not a word!
But why not put pram? I suspect because it looks strange to whoever wrote the message. She probably thought that non-Dutch speakers wouldn’t know the word pram either. It looks too fancy and difficult to use in such a case Especially when because she might have seen what the complete word is: ‘perambulator’. Wow, that’s really strange for such a basic, every day thing!
Don’t forget that Dutch people take their saying: ‘act normal and you behave strange enough’ (this is a very literal and therefore bad translation) very seriously and they apply it to their choice of words too. Even though ‘perambulator’ is no longer used much and has become a nice and short word, ‘pram’ is still sufficiently ‘strange’ to choose when you are told to quickly write a practical message in English.
A lot of students I worked with have that same allergy. They very often think a word that is formal, that doesn’t sound or look at all like anything they recognise, is best avoided. They are so allergic to these words that they simply don’t believe me when I say the word is very common in English and not at all reserved for VIPs. I must be some kind of freak with my enthusiasm for it and my optimistic statements such as, “write it down! You should remember it!”. Best ignore that woman and her strange words.
And that’s how Dutch people end up behaving a bit out of the ordinary sometimes. They would rather put a child in a far too big, unhandy wagon (which would probably not even fit through the door of the parent-child-center (and where are you supposed to leave your horse?! The sign doesn’t mention horses.)) than appear snobbish and use such basic and much more practical things as prams.
I know there are books about funny mistakes Dutch people make when speaking or writing English. I promis this blog will be a little different and I won't steal any stories from others. I would, however, like contributions from others and hope to have a bit of fun discussing what we have 'leathered'.