There is no question: we are surrounded by words.
If, like me, you spend time deleting Spam, be wary, Spammers with a small ‘s’ are now using thousands of obscure words in their emails hoping that one will connect with you – then you will open their mail.
Just how many words fly around in cyberspace each day? How many words are added to the English language each year?
Within this information overload – heavens I am even contributing with 79 words to this point – there comes a time when we simply need to step back from language and ask the question, " What is happening here?"
If, like me, you reach an information overload then here are a few suggestions that may re-invigorate a delight in the English language.
First you can do what an English language lecturer once suggested to me – go back to childrens’ books.
Read picture books. Borrow them from a library. Delight in the play of language. What relationships are there between the words and the pictures? Look at words, their shapes, explore their sounds. What do new words sound like to a fresh ear? Delight in the music of words by listening to the sounds of foreign languages or poetry readings. There is something beautiful and comforting in hearing a good reader. Sound poets can be fantastic. Stop and explore the beauty in words before or after going through them to explore content.
All subject areas have a common core of the English language, as well as their own terminology. Encourage students to build glossaries of words or simply to explore etymology. Webster’s Online Dictionary is quite fascinating. It takes a meaning of a word and shows its many cultural connections by showing links to the use of a word in movie titles, speeches, as an acronym, anagrams, in film or song titles, in other languages, its statistical use, and in forms such as Braille, semaphore, Morse code, HTML, etc. This is a wonderful resource for considering the many ways in which we can look at words. One student explores the history of a word while another explores its mathematical /statistical use. A simple scan of an atlas opens many new words and connections to place, and history, through name origin.
If one really wants to stop and reflect upon language – heavens above reflection is a most under utilised tool in modern education – then we can highlight language by magnifying it through recordings. Record language. Think about it. Discuss its use. Watch language through an oscilloscope. Scientifically analyse words e.g. an analysis of word frequency or how we know that a recording is of a specific person. Imagine the analyses you can conduct in class. Connect these to studies of how scientists analyse tapes of Bin Laden or conduct computer analyses of writers to identify that a found sonnet could be e.g. a lost writing of Shakespeare’s.
At this point let me emphasise that every English teacher should have access to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language as it reveals an extraordinary number of ways of exploring language! Imagine students role-playing in which you interview words or letters. Imagine playing word bingo in which listening students identify key phrases or expressions.
We can also take everyday language and poeticise it. Record and transcribe speech or sections of a text. Remove conjunctions and prepositions, rearrange into a poetic style, and immediately everyday language can have meanings that connect to our feelings rather than our intellect.
If like me you despair at a much over intellectualized curriculum in schools – words always pointing to a content and ideas rather than simply feelings – then consider how words do not have to be anchored in fact or meaning.
Poetry reveals many subtle and un-categorisable meanings in the English language. What means something to you means a different thing to me. Just ask students to say what they think when they hear the words ‘limb’ or ‘mouse’.
In my work with disabilities drama one great lesson has been a realization that words do not have to be anchored as text or plans for things to work. A film or play can work even if it is not fully scripted. Try telling that to funding bodies! Many times whether it is in improvisation, or just having fun, words can fly and take on a world of their own. This cannot be predicted. It can only be allowed. Encourage absurdity and ask students to build from the word or a sentence. As long as students support each other in the back and fro who knows what meanings can be evoked. And of course wordplay can be fun! Students could even create soundscapes that emphasise sounds as well as words.
If as teachers we want to explore the nature of language then we can at least stop, pause, and look at words themselves. What are these strange creatures that follow us in this world, creating understanding, misunderstandings and leaving traces long after others and we have gone? Stop, as I will do now, and don’t add any more. Just look at what is around us and rejoice in looking at the surface of words – the visiting in at – rather than always traveling through to the destination.
On this note – I return – eton siht no.
© Copyright In Clued - Ed 2009