03 July 2014

The importance of learning words*

Mrs. Lakshmi Jeganathan, who once claimed (and rightly so) that she taught me my ‘A, B, C’ (the letters pronounced with ‘correct’ enunciation of course), continues to teach me English, 41 years after I first attended her ‘Spoken English’ class somewhere off Charles Circus, Colombo 3.  Her son, Pradeep, my brother’s classmate and a fellow member of our school’s junior chess team in 1978 and 1979, told me about four or five years ago that he’s amazed that those who were so terrorized by his very strict mother that they quit after a few years nevertheless sent their children to her (to be terrorized, he didn’t have to say). 

Pradeep is correct. I am an example.  I couldn’t take it.  I just didn’t have the patience and probably some minimum level of comprehension to do what it would have taken to have a smooth ride to language competence.  She did teach me my ‘A, B, C’ and I will always say without hesitation that Mrs. Jeganathan, Aunty Lakshmi to her students, is the main reason that I like literature and why, after much dabbling on all kinds of spheres, I ended up writing in English for a living.   And yes, I take my children to her and am happy that they are made of sterner stuff than their father.  Aunty Lakshmi is not a terrorist. She’s just extra strict, and that’s because she is a dedicated teacher and like all good teachers would blame herself if her students did not acquire the language skills that would in later life give them the confidence to live and work in a snooty world. 

She teaches me, still.  The other day, as I waited until my daughter’s class was over, I heard her tell someone ‘there is no such thing as “in between”; it’s “between”, and “in between” is a “Ceylonism”.’  I don’t want to get into a debate about language standards and relevant politics, but it made perfect sense to me. If it’s all about communication and being coherent, then there’s every reason to drop redundancies.

There’s a new word waiting for all of us, every day.  It can be on a hoarding, a newspaper advertisement, in a news report, a political commentary, the admonishment of a superior, the complaint of a subordinate, or the question of a child.  It can be a Sinhala or Tamil word. It could be an English word.  We encounter such words all the time but we don’t have eyes to see, ears to hear or the mind to take note. 

Life is not about learning new words, this is true, but each time we add something to our vocabulary, we become better communicators. We also enhance our understanding of things and processes for words have histories and they have futures too.  They also have multiple uses and in the lips, tongue, hard or soft palette, teeth ridge and of course fingertip of the alert and creative user, they become lethal, not because each word is sharp and therefore an instrument but that they are tender and made for love. 

Knowing words, their meanings and applications, amounts to arming oneself with a shield.  It is harder to hoodwink with word those who know word.  And when you know words, word-players find it harder to trip you.  I believe also that the more words you know, the better you become at reading between words and lines, and most importantly, better at reading silences.

Aunty Lakshmi taught me many words.  She also taught me how important pronunciation is. One might interpret this as a salutation of what I’ve at times referred to as ‘Snooty English’, but it’s something else.  Quite apart from giving confidence, those who are crisp in articulation, I find, are almost always more effective communicators and are heard better. 

I remember numerous exercises designed to make sure that children get their endings right, including the recitation of poetry specifically composed to make them articulate the sounds associated with the ‘d’ and ‘b’, figure out the difference between how ‘v’ and ‘w’ are pronounced, and learn the correct articulation of the different ‘o’ sounds.  Now, watching Aunty Lakshmi painstakingly (and even menacingly) drill these things into children who are not from bi-lingual homes, I cannot help thinking that someday, they will be spared the snootiness of people who think ‘proper’ pronunciation is somehow related to superior intellect. 

Such expertise can be used and abused, but we should not forget that knowing how to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and nothing much else doesn’t make for effective use, or even effective abuse for that matter. 

My late friend and benefactor Errol Alphonso once sent a word my way: factoid.  I hadn’t heard it before.  But it opened the door to interesting exploration. Indeed, it provoked an article (‘Factoids, powerpuffpresentations and powerhuff pouting’ – see Sunday Lakbima News of May 15, 2011).  Here’s the meaning:

‘An invented fact, meaning something that is presented as true but which is in fact nothing but a construct of the imagination, often deliberate and uttered with intention to mislead.  It is an invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print.’

The world is made of factoids, I suddenly realized. Well, I knew this, but didn’t know the word for it.  Those to introduce words to us or, to be more precise, those who inject the idea of ‘word’, open multiple doors in our minds and hearts that take us to fascinating universes of being and becoming.  I’ve already thanked Errol.

Thank you Aunty Lakshmi.


*First published in the Daily News about three years ago.