Down with the kids…

imagesI am finding it increasingly difficult to understand a word my children say. I feel I am probably not alone in this and so here it is – my guide to navigating the minefield of conversation with your children:

– “Basically”: Well, basically, this word adds basically no value at all to any conversation and basically does not refer in any way to the fundamentals of anything at all in the true sense of the word – put basically it is basically a conversation filler and no self-respecting kid’s sentence is basically complete without it.
– “Like”: This is of the same ilk as “basically” – to be clear it does not mean a comparison is intended nor is it used in a verbal sense. It is totally (totes) meaningless as in “she was like talking to me when she like basically fell off her chair”. You will note the combined use of “like basically” often separated by the “conjunction” “er” as in “she like er basically fell of her chair”. On no account should these linguistical gymnastics be attempted by anyone over 20 as you run the very real risk of being laughed at very hard by your children – totes humiliating. By the way I am not going to comment on the use of “totes” suffice to say that it is one of the most irritating aberrations of the English Language and has a similar effect on me as nails down a blackboard. In fact this habit of adding an ‘s’ to perfectly good words is something I find particularly offensive.
– “Banter”: My elder son’s language is peppered liberally with this word at the moment. Everything is “banter”. Well everything that is except the time he spends with me apparently. “Banter” is so pervasive at his school that in fact one child has self-styled himself as the “Archbishop of Banterbury”. “Banter” seems very much to be lads-speak and is often accompanied with lots of “mate” and general back-slapping and jostling.
– “Ledge”: This has absolutely nothing to with any sort of shelf but is, of course, short for “legendary”. Along with “totes” and “awks” this is yet another example of abbreviating words which does make you wonder whether our children struggle with pronouncing any words of more than one syllable. As above, everyone is a “ledge” except for me who is apparently “the worst mother in the world, ever”.
– “Innit”: A corruption of “isn’t it” which is most often used rhetorically at the end of sentences and seems to serve no purpose whatsoever other than to annoy the adult who is engaging in conversation with a child.
– “Sick”: Think total opposite and you’ve understood the meaning of this word. For the medically-minded be aware that a child will never use this word in any sort of health context.  Like “ledge” this word is unlikely to be used in referring to an adult or parent.
– “Cheeky Nando’s”: I have to confess that I find this one of the most baffling of expressions and even my son could only come up with “er like er basically” when asked to define it. As someone who has always found Nando’s to be nothing more than a glorified version of KFC, it is hard for me to understand the attraction of a “cheeky Nando’s” but I guess it’s all part of banter.

There are two other peculiarities of kids’ speech worthy of mention: the pseudo-Australian rising of the voice at the end of every sentence as if asking a question when no question is intended and the complete disregard for the letter “t” in any word – e.g. “butter” becomes “bu…er” and “gutted” becomes “gu…id”.

So there you have it – simples. A word of warning though – it is not at all cool to try and join in with your children in this language usage. If you casually drop the word “banter” into your conversation you will either be met by silence/tumbleweed moment or utter ridicule. LOL (that’s “laugh out loud” by the way not “lots of love”).

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Lost in Translation…

Cover of "Do I Look Fat in This"

Cover of Do I Look Fat in This

Many years ago, in one of my many professional incarnations, I taught English to foreign students.  Some found the English Language fairly easy to learn, others less so.  However one thing that always caused confusion was when I explained that often when an English speaker says something, they actually mean something totally different.  I don’t know how much this is an issue in other languages – my grasp of other languages is so embarrassingly bad that I can barely tussle with the literal meaning let along any subtext.

In English, as spoken by a Brit,  however, subtext and etiquette play a huge part in the language and failing to see the subtext is a minefield which many have accidentally wandered into.

Take the innocuous “You must come for dinner, let’s get a date in the diary” or “I’ll give you a call”.  Woe betide you should think that is what the person actually means.  Don’t make the mistake of fishing out your diary or worse still waiting by the phone for it to ring.  When we say these things what we actually mean is “my diary is full for the next six months” and “I have absolutely no intention of ringing you”. We’re not being rude, it’s just that it is much easier to be faux-polite and to exchange the required formalities than it is to say “Bye then, I’ll see you around” which is what we really mean.

The British are for ever saying “sorry” or “I’m sure it’s my fault”.  This is not because we think we are at fault; confusingly quite the opposite.  Saying “sorry” is an automatic response for us Brits.  “Sorry” in this context is not remotely intended as an apology but again is a form of politeness.  Probably the worst thing you could say in response would be “apology accepted” – be warned, there was no apology intended.  It’s just words.

This politeness is acutely apparent at the British dinner party.  When presented with flowers or a gift by a guest, the hostess will inevitably murmur “Oh you shouldn’t have…”.  This is another example of where what we say is actually the opposite of what we mean.  What your hostess actually means is “Yes you should have bought me something, I’ve been up since 6am cooking your bloody dinner and sweating blood, sweat and tears over Nigella and Jamie Oliver”.

A common mistake that non-British people make when meeting a Brit is in response to the oft-used question “How are you?” or “How are you doing?”.  This question is almost rhetorical in nature.  The person is not remotely interested in how you actually are, but courtesy and greeting formality demand the use of such a question.  The mistake commonly made is to reply with a lengthy account of your current medical status.  This is neither required or indeed desired.

Relationships are another linguistical minefield with some very clear rules.  If a woman asks “Do I look fat in this?” do not hesitate to consider your answer.  Any hesitation will be taken as doubt by the woman.  This question is a stock question which requires a stock answer for reassurance purposes only.  The woman is not actually interested in whether you actually think she does look fat in it, she just wants to hear you say “Of course not, darling”.  Whatever you do, do not try and give a fuller answer – for example, “not at all but I think the red dress looks better” – as this will only serve to antagonise the woman and result in the accusation being levelled at you, “You do think I’m fat, don’t you!”  Take the easy option, you are not required to answer with any more detail, in fact it is actively discouraged.

If you are out with a group of people and you hear someone describe another person as “having a heart of gold” or “such a lovely, kind person”, do not be fooled – this is subtext speak for that person being, how do I put it kindly, “no oil painting”.  In fact, we have a lot of expressions which thinly disguise the brutal truth – my personal favourite is “he/she is not the sharpest knife in the drawer” – sounds so much kinder than “thick as two short planks”.

There is one situation though where you can take what we say at face value.  If your girlfriend/partner/wife says to you, “I’m really sorry but I’ve got a headache” – she means it.  Yes, there is a subtext here, of course, and by all means offer her a paracetamol but don’t dispute it, otherwise the headache will inevitably get worse and recur more often.

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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.