‘Words, words, words.’

(Hamlet  Act II Scene ii)

John Dunia’s latest article ‘Grammatically Thinking’ rightly points out that it is far more important to communicate without bothering to take note of any grammatical mistakes and correct them. After all, transcending our prejudices regarding the w#ay people speak and write plays a big part in living (and not merely showing)  empathy.

So it is good to remember that not everyone has/has had the opportunity of being exposed to and assimilate very good schooling. Nor are we all born into families and domains speaking a country’s ‘standard’ language, meaning the dialect that is regarded as correct for public and formal usage.

This latter reality explains the wonderful array of dialects spoken in any country, big or small which chracterise a community living in a given region; at times different ‘pockets’ within the same region. Though I rarely understand them, I love the ‘ring’ of dialects because they invariably intone the rawness of authenticity stripped of uniformity. It’s also a wonder to encounter dialects in villages dotting national borders because villagers on either side often communicate with perfect ease simply by sticking to their own dialect making you realise that what seems a language barrier is actually a criss-cross of intradialectic communication whether to exchange pleasantries or hurtle insults. I learnt this when I happened to be travelling along both the French/Italian and Italian/Slovenian borders.

Whatever dialect we speak, we need to factor in the many nuances of social strata, educational, generational and gender differences which impact every utterance.

A quick dip into sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics will soon intimate the complexities of the spoken word we take so much for granted.

Indeed, language acquisition (over and above learning how to read and write) is our greatest feat as human beings though sadly glossed over. Do give a moment’s thought to our learning what, how, when and where to say during our first months and years on this planet. It should have you dancing on the table in no time.  More so, if you think of those who are severely language impaired. They too have stories to tell – stories which need listening to but will never be heard because they cannot be told or written.

Having said that, Dunia’s article also brought many memories of my being at the forefront of the ‘grammar police’  gang for I spent about 20 years teaching English language and literature.

And didn’t I wield my truncheon! Metaphorically speaking.

New students would take a while to believe me when I’d tell them with a Cheshire smile that I become a witch with the longest fangs and the deadliest talons when I correct their work. At first, they would laugh but they soon got the message. It took a lot of reaching out to deal with their dejected, bemused, or nonchalant expressions and adapt the ‘spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down’ according to their individual personalities.

As a language and literature teacher, correcting all kinds of errors is inevitable if you want a good job done.  Correcting students’ spelling, grammar, word choice, syntax, register, cohesion, and sequence does not boil down to a technical exercise or a strategy to give them a downer. Correcting their mistakes without hurting their feelings and guiding them to come to grips with what they need to learn shows how much you care even if they could not care less. Nevertheless, teaching is a two-way traffic process built on mutual respect. It is also a fact that you can take the horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Those who do drink travel a road that goes much further than speaking and writing well.

I did not win over all of my students – no teacher ever does – but neither did I lower my standards because they would not raise theirs. Some people may call my stance snobbery or excessive perfectionism. While I admit that I am a perfectionist, I do not concur with snobbery because a willful carelessness in speaking and writing perpetuates mediocrity and worse. Worse as in a lack of self-respect, a lack of self-dignity; both of which may lead to cerebral shutdown.

It is also important to remember that no matter what we look like or happen to be wearing, it is the moment we open our mouth to speak that broadcasts our identity kit.

Back to the classroom, correcting students’ verbal and written mistakes gave me an inisght into their background, in my case particularly of the influence of code-switching when English was not their first language.

Take an essay written by a Russian student. It is bound to be replete with an incorrect use of articles for the simple reason that there are no articles in the Russian language. Strange as it may sound, teaching the use of articles in English is one of the hardest grammatical points to teach and learn because the pertinent rules are extremely complex. Who would think that ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’ take much sweat when English is not your native language!

As for an Italian, French, Spanish or Portuguese student, you have long rambling sentences (read convoluted syntax) guaranteed for the simple reason that this style is their staple. Language is a repository of culture and as Federico Fellini, the great Italian film director said: ‘A different language is a different vision of life.’

This is relevant to any language teaching. Good language skills demand truckloads of reading and reflection piled high with ongoing self-criticism along a journey of never-ending work-in-progress. Of knowing the rules so well that you can break them to reinvent the wheel. Which basicially mirrors our lives in flux of constant becoming. And renders the present tense so fleeting that it is a chimera.

Teaching experience apart, I feel strongly about the use of language because despite and in spite of its limitations, the power of language enables us to articulate our thoughts and flesh our memories substantiating, possibly even transubstantiating, the crescendo and cadence of our individual and collective sense perceptions, critical or uncritical minds and concomitant baggage. For this reason, language is a repository of culture and should be a crucial cohesive force in retaining our humanity.

Words are therefore much more than a means of communication. In a world where image literacy is spiking at the expense of verbal literacy while seismic geopolitical shifts are shaking us – though many of us refuse to be shaken – I would like to refer to George Orwell’s dateless seminal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. In doing so I need to veer away from the importance of listening empathically to people to the importance of listening to the sleazy world of politics, without losing sight of and respect for the former.

Penned in 1946, the politically éngagé Orwell could have very well written his diatribe against shoddy political writing styles this morning because of his equating abuse of language with insidious propaganda to spur abuse of power is as relevant as ever. The consequent vicious circle corrupts both language and thought so that the ability to think things out as well as individual and collective memory become befogged.

The end result? We encourage ourselves to be bamboozled and trodden over by the power wielders who are becoming more powerful by the nanosecond. Orwell does not mince his words when he exposes the devious ways with which political writers use to deceive their audiences. He is particularly slamming when he affirms: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

Writers of spin (even beyond politics) are extremely clever at impressing their audiences with meaningless blah fueled by their lack of moral compass and insincerity. (Unsurprisingly, Orwell considered insincerity to be the greatest ‘enemy of language’.) Spin doctors largely succeed by oiling a pitch-perfect propaganda machine which trashes intellectual liberty and collective memory so that we become effective colluders. Ultimately, it is our lack of critical thinking and our apathy which clinches their success. So, racking our brains goes more miles than raking our grammar.

Correct grammar and syntax will not up our empathy or humaneness.  But both help to sharpen our minds by meaning what we say as well as crystallise our thoughts and values to hopefully empower us to see through the hollowness of spin.

Orwell’s insight into how a decadent language both mirrors and feeds a decadent society merits much, much mulling over. So much that he deserves the last word:

‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’

Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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  1. so much here–he joys of teaching, the pains and frustrations of teaching, Orwell, language and its’ limitations, its’ inherent elitism at times, the love of words and their power to move nations, their potential power to create dictatorships–but most of all what every teacher loves the most–reaching a “horse” or student that goes to the water of education and drinks it–how that transforms, how that is alchemy–how that is the most satisfying joy on the planet–ORWELL may have gotten it right, as Zarb points out, language can corrupt thought, and we do have to be aware of the corrupters–but language can also elevate, can also lead us to the stars, can also lead to happiness, even to the edifying works of ORWELL, THE KING

    • Thank you, Edward, for your time, appreciation and reflections. As you rightly say, the use of language can either elevate us to the stars or have us succumb to dictatorships. I honestly believe that Orwell should be a staple on any syllabus worth its salt for his insight is dateless. As for the joys of teaching, any real teacher will concur with your remarks. I sincerely hope that this joy will continue to flow like a river despite the challenging world we live in, primarily the challenges of poor parental skills and extreme political correctness. Political agendas I will not go into except to say that uncritical minds make life easy for governing bodies.

  2. Noemi,
    Your ability to create such vivid imagery is incredible.
    The story read like a road to a turn about with each exit
    entering into a kaleidoscope of sensory responses of emotions.
    Terry Stolz
    Writer/Poet

  3. Well written Noemi! Reminds me of the differences between my native Maltese, and the language my own family speaks and is more familiar with, Croatian. To say a sentence of say 10 words and 20 syllables in Maltese is easily covered in half of that in Croatian (which may explain why my kids have picked it up easily). That said though, in each language is their culture, history and their legacy.

    • Thank you ever so much Jason, for taking the time to read, reflect and comment on my piece. As a compatriot, your comparing Maltese with Croatian made me smile for more than one reason. You rightly say that language encompasses ‘culture, history and legacy.’
      Pity how we do not bother with the death of a language which once gone, all that it said and did is gone forever.

  4. Thank you for this very excellent and exhaustive article where the importance of words and language is well documented and explained…

    Let’s not forget that words are weapons which we can use for the good or for the bad ; and, yes, they are so powerful !!!

  5. Thank you Noemi, a very interesting article to allow one to think on more deeply. Language these days is tricky, everyone has become so testy, with words that are being used. We need to lighten up a bit.
    Thank you !

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my piece. You make a valid point about everyone being so testy these days. I believe this is the sad result of giving in to political correctness.

      I’m sorry to miss out on your name. Please do not think that I am being impersonal.

    • Thank you Larry for your time and appreciation. Good to hear your heartfelt gratitude for your wife. Most men are lost without their wives! As for women without their husbands, well, you’re giving me ideas for a future article.

  6. I am often left agog at the seemingly infinite strains of dialect I have encountered during my travels. I am rarely unable to decipher any attempt at speaking American (a distinct dialect of English.)
    Many accents, I believe, are fading in America because of the lack of regional reinforcement of their particular strain of English.
    I have had to hesitate, for far too long, while trying to converse with a Cajun Louisianan once or twice. This is worth mentioning even though we were both speaking English! I’ve frequently been gobsmacked, yet totally enamored, with the rhythm and song of so many people throughout Europeans shy attempts to converse with me in my language, English.
    The folks I’ve been privileged to talk to in Portuguese speaking Brazil, as well as many Spanish speaking people, have a unique accent while speaking English and are often amused when I try to explain American slang to them.
    It is usually an embarrassment to me, recognizing that so many people, everywhere around the planet, speak several languages, while most Americans struggle with one.

    • Thank you so much Garry for taking the time to read, reflect and comment on my article as well as the message you sent me on LI. Different accents and dialects are truly a wonder and you are indeed fortunate to be able to encounter so many just by living in the US. Your reference to American slang made me chuckle for my brother (who lives in the States) sometimes confuses me with an expression I’ve never heard and he is always full of jokes between UK and US English. What I find even more fascinating is that the US does not have any official languages, or am I wrong?

  7. Congratulations Noemi for this piece of architecture which intensely resonates as long I am concerned.
    I have spent my professional time dealing with students too and can easily share and confirm all the feelings that are evoked in this article.
    Language, in my vision, is the « intimate-outer » cloth of any human in its « singular plurality » of vibrations, resonances, choice of forms/structure (grammar and-or syntax) for the words to be articulated.
    Language is much deeper than one could thought when starting learning its infinite resSources and deeply impacts the quality of any thought process. For any language, the very language ends up in a old and often neglected root (Greek or Latine) spreading its significant expansions all over the world of communication in totally different forms of structured means of expressions, which are themselves called . Actually, behind the « image » preceding any thought, it can be considered as an alpha and omega…

    • Thank you, Florence for taking the time to read my ‘piece of architecture’ (love this expression) and more especially for the insightful reflections you share. How right you are about the treasure trove we Europeans, in particular, are trashing by neglecting our Greek and Latin roots. Of course, I’d say the same thing about the roots of non-Indo-European languages. We are all losers when we neglect our roots.

  8. Thank you, Naomi, for a thought-provoking spin through language. To your point. “Do give a moment’s thought to our learning what, how, when and where to say during our first months and years on this planet,” My wife and I were traveling via the London tube the other day – New Yorkers on holiday – and I became mesmerized when listening to who I assume was a Londoner talking to her very young baby. What goes on in the brain I wondered silently for that baby to eventually pick up on and mimic her Mum’s intonation? What made my speech so distinct that my not-yet-my-wife pointed out to me “You’re from the midwest, aren’t you?”

    Regarding the language of politics? It should be a required course for every high school student.

    • Thank you Jeff for taking the time to read, reflect and comment on my piece. I too was in for some surprises when I mistook a fair number of dialects. The most vivid in my memory goes back to two Scottish ladies who sounded perfectly German to my ears.

      I fully agree with the language of politics being a staple for every high school student though who would teach it opens a can of worms.

  9. I am hesitant to write a word on this page, coming from a mixed up writing background. I am dyslexic and have shrunk in terror most of my life from putting pen to paper. To write in front of anyone, cascaded errors fluently onto the page. Yet I have had to write as an essential part of my career. This is where cunning was sharpened with years of experience, to dodge and delegate the dreaded task.
    With the appearance of my first computer, I found a friend, be it back then very basic, Spellcheck. With a touch every error was revealed and corrected, my courage slowly grew. Errors are certainly not absent, just not so many or so blatantly obvious.
    I struggle with certain words repeatedly, once I hesitate I am lost. Exasperation appears which I have to fight to contain, risk has to be accepted as part of my new love writing.

    Parts of your post made my heart sing, thank you.

    Penny Wobbly of WobblingPen.

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