The Anguish of Learning English
Lately my husband and I have been sorting through our bins of stuff in an effort to reduce the amount in our storage unit. This is a COVID-inspired activity that actually produces a positive result.
While digging around in a bin of my old teaching materials and my kids’ artwork, I found the little book More Anguished English by Richard Lederer. The book’s subtitle reads: An expose of embarrassing, excruciating, and egregious errors in English. I bought this book second hand at least twenty-five years ago. Finding it again brought back a vivid memory of the time I first read it.
It was spring break and I’d rented a house on Chincoteague Island. I had my two kids and two of their friends with me. The kids were finishing dinner and I picked up the book. Soon I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t read it aloud to them.
Some examples from students’ essays*:
Rambo was a French poet.
A great Jewish leader in Scotland was Rabbi Burn.s
A harp is a nude piano. (This image delights me every time.)
As I reread pages a quarter of a century later, I wasn’t as amused. In fact, I found myself feeling compassion for the beleaguered writers, and slightly irritated that the author and my former self made fun at their expense. My change of attitude was rooted in the eight years I taught English as a new language (ENL) to children from kindergarten through fifth grade.
English is a difficult, often nonsensical language. A famous example of its challenges is the variation on /ough/: rough, through, slough(two meanings, two pronunciations), though. Sometimes English seems to have more exceptions than reliable patterns.
My experience as an ENL teacher changed the way I read the “bloopers” in More Anguished English. Some errors were caused by mishearing, such as The big artery on your neck is called the jocular vein. Other mistakes were misspellings: At night we stayed in a youth hostile.
Instead of finding humor in the errors, I found that my heart hurt a bit for the authors struggling to communicate in a challenging language. Whether English is a first language or a new language, learning it isn’t easy. How many native speakers are confused by there, they’re, and their? Were and where?
Sure, the errors writers make are often amusing. Even today, some make me laugh. But my years of teaching second grade and ENL changed me.
Here are some student definitions to lighten your COVID days:
Migration: A headache that birds get when they fly south for the winter.
Syntax: Is all the money collected at church from sinners.
Foliage: A mother horse having a baby.
And particularly relevant to our pre-election anguish:
Absentee ballot: When you count the ballots and some of them aren’t there.
*All citations from More Anguished English, by Richard Lederer. Delacorte Press, New York, 1993.