Feeling a little discombobulated?

dictionary-1 copy.jpg

dictionary-1 copy.jpg (Photo credit: TexasT’s)

“Mummy, I am feeling rather discombobulated today” – so said my eldest as he came out of school the other day. What a fabulous word “discombobulated” is – one of my all-time favourites.

Before you think my son is showing signs of at best an unlikely grasp of the English language for an 8 year old or at worst deep pretension, there seems to be a sort of competition amongst the boys in his class to use long words. Unsurprisingly this competition has spread beyond the confines of the classroom  (competitive parenting) – you give me “discombobulated”, I’ll raise you with “triskaidekaphobia”.  Yes, I know it’s pathetic but that’s what I sent my son back with, pretty confident that his “discombobulated” friend wouldn’t know the word.

There are a plethora of wonderful words in the English language – many of course with roots in other languages. I think that if I was asked which book I would take to a desert island with me, it would definitely be the English Dictionary. Every day I come across fabulous new words.  My latest favourite word is “callipygian” – any ideas? It means “having well-shaped buttocks” – It comes from the ancient Greeks who always did have a keen eye for the human form! Unfortunately I think my days of being described as “callipygian” are well and truly behind me (excuse the pun).

“Antidisestablishmentarianism” is generally accepted to be the longest word in the English language (except of course the wonderful “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” which doesn’t count as a made-up word from “Mary Poppins”).  However, it is not just the long words that garner attention in the English language.  Some of the best words are the shortest, particularly onomatopoeic words such as “gurgle”, “whir” and “flutter”. I would love to know whether other languages have these sorts of words – I am ashamed to admit that my grasp of other languages is so remedial that I don’t know.

There are also, for me, words which I really do not like the sound of.  For some reason, I absolutely loathe the “oi” sound as in words such as moist, foist, doily, oily, loiter – it’s irrational, I know, but those words set me on edge. Fortunately, “doily” is not a word I use that often…if at all!

Language is always evolving and there are a host of new words some of which frankly I am struggling to understand.  My son uses a whole host of “americanisms” in his everyday speech (mainly gleaned from his rather obsessive watching of the “Disney Channel”) – my least favourite is “butt” which he liberally peppers his speech with.  The word “sick” seems to make regular appearances and has a definition polar opposite to its traditional meaning as far as I can work out.

Then there are the little phrases which he overuses – his current favourite is “it’s not rocket science” which he uses at least 30 times a day as a response to almost everything and usually directed at me when he thinks I am being particularly stupid (in his eyes, an all too regular occurrence)  and with it he affects an air of superiority which is not particularly attractive in an 8 year old child.

My favourite new expression, which I definitely think deserves a place in the English Dictionary, is courtesy of my daughter, aged 3.  She picked up a bra from the washing basket and said “Look Mummy, here is your booby mask”.  Now, that’s a great description and one which has stuck in our household.

Time for me to stop being sesquipedalian (look that one up!) and get on with more mundane activities, like washing my booby masks! What are your favourite words?  Are there any words that you don’t like the sound of?

Parlez-vous anglais?

French flag

French flag (Photo credit: Nebel)

8 years – that is how many years I learnt French at school. I got an A in my French O’Level. How have I started every conversation on my holiday in France so far? “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame parlez-vous anglais?”

It is utterly pathetic – no other word covers it. Can you imagine a French man or woman approaching me in England and saying “Good morning, do you speak French?” They’d be laughed out of town! So why is it deemed acceptable for me to expect someone to speak a foreign language in their home country just because my grasp of their language is so utterly feeble?

My memory of French speaking at school is confined to passing the dreaded 5 minute French oral component of the French O’Level. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that my 8 years of learning to speak French came down in the final analysis to the moment in my exam when I discovered whether the role play in my French oral would be buying tickets at a railway station or doing the weekly shop in the supermarket.

The emphasis in schools at this time was not on speaking a language but on reading/writing a language. I’ve lost count of the number of fictional French pen pals I wrote letters to over the years in my French lessons. Suffice to say that in my opinion the emphasis was all wrong. What is the point of being able to write a beautiful letter in exquisite French if you can only do an impression of a mute when actually faced with a Frenchman.

It is of course shameful that we, as a nation, have always expected others to speak English and therefore consider language learning as nothing more than a pleasant pastime, nothing to take too seriously as we can always speak English loudly and slowly (and patronisingly) and be understood.

Are things changing nowadays in our schools and more importantly in our national psyche? I can only hope so. My children are exposed to so many more languages than I was in their curriculum – both my sons are currently learning Mandarin – well, this term at least. I really hope that this does not amount to lip service to a variety of languages but results in a generation of children who do not expect English to be spoken by everyone around the world but who feel comfortable expressing themselves in other languages. After all how can you really understand other cultures without some comprehension of the main communication tool – language?

The world is a much smaller place now and the Internet has provided a whole new universal language and also wonderful opportunities for our children to communicate with others across cultural barriers. At school my sons recently skyped with a class of similarly aged children in a Chinese school – what a fantastic communication experience that beats hands down the endless contrived role plays of my language learning experience of the 1980s.