Analyzing Kevin’s New Way of Speaking

As a linguistics enthusiast, it’s no surprise that my all time favorite moment from The Office is when the endearing resident dunce Kevin creates a new way of speaking in order to “save time.” Through forgoing articles, plural markers, and verb inflections (not to mention replacing “I” and “my” with “me”), Kevin’s “more efficient” way of speaking alienates him from his coworkers and actually obscures his intended meaning. I have two nerdy observations about Kevin’s new language to share, but first, watch this and prepare to laugh:

Observation #1: Grammar matters!

Whenever I watch this video, I want to show it to my ESL students to show how integral grammar can be in constructing meaning. Many of my students come from backgrounds where grammar was pounded into them as a body of knowledge to be memorized, but not so much as a tool to create meaning. The last thing I want to do is inhibit my students from communicating for fear of making a grammatical mistake, but I think the example of Kevin is a great way to illustrate just how important it is to master those pesky articles and verb tenses.

In Kevin’s attempt to tell his coworkers what he was going to do with all his extra time, the lack of article usage in his new way of speaking made it unclear whether he wanted to see the world, or go to Sea World. The articles a, an, and the can be difficult for many ESL students to master because their native language lacks this grammatical category. However, this does not mean that their respective languages don’t express the meaning denoted by English articles. Their languages just do it in different ways.

When speaking English though, articles are an integral part of expressing meaning. Although it may seem like it would save time to ignore the intricacies of English grammar, just like Kevin found out, in the long run it might actually take more of your time and energy to express your meaning.

Secondly, although I’m a descriptivist at heart, the blunt truth is that grammar has social implications, especially in an educational setting. Although most professors at an American university wouldn’t question if a student needed to be hospitalized due to poor grammar, poor grammar can have a negative effect on a student’s academic experience in a university setting. With all the presentations that need to be given, papers that need to be written, and professors that need to be talked to, good grammar is key in achieving success in college. So although I don’t want my students to fear making grammatical mistakes, I also want to encourage them to improve their grammar so they can improve their college experience.

Observation #2: But Kevin’s language actually has its own grammar…

One of the first questions I had after watching Kevin’s new way of speaking was if it actually had consistent grammatical rules. If so, I wondered if it was similar to pidgin languages. A pidgin language is a significantly simplified language constructed between two people groups in order to communicate. It is a sort of makeshift language until a second generation picks it up as its first language, after which it is known as a creole. (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/messeas/handouts/pjcreol/node1.html)

The interesting thing about pidgins and creoles is that although they are grammatically simplified, they are consistent in their grammatical rules. According to Harold Schiffman, pidgins/creoles have the following grammatical characteristics:

“1. Has limited vocabulary, simplified grammar (e.g. no PNG, no gender, no plural marking, no agreement (e.g. `one man come; two man come; three man go yesterday’)

  1. Often has aspect instead of tense; marked with particles instead of affixation.
  2. Very little redundency[sic]; as simple as can be.”

To make a long story short, Kevin’s consistency with lack of verb inflections and plural markers does show some similarities to a pidgin. However, the fact that he is not simplifying language in order to communicate with speakers of another language makes his speech, as Andy says, “the linguistic equivalent of wearing underpants.”

No matter though, because our lovable underdog Kevin has plans to prove that his linguistic ingenuity will make America greater than Donald Trump ever could.

tumblr_nsy4wnNd5E1us3bdso1_500  (wifflegif.com)

Malone for 2016? Anyone?

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Layers

The mystery of layers: it has haunted in that awkward place between thought and words since I became older than I ever imagined I could be, marinating in a mixture of memories and color.

The layers are becoming too thick to bear, scratchy as an old wool sweater. Year by year, the stories pile, nestle themselves on top of each other, enveloping me with heat.

Sometimes the layers make a kind of macrocosmic sense; the camera pans out, and my cord in the tapestry of God’s faithfulness is illuminated by a sunset cast in the right light or by a moment of starry clarity in a vivid, lonely contentment.

But lately, the layers climb higher and higher until I feel trapped in my own story and the stories that have built it; I grasp at photographs and memories of vivid, lonely contentment on a road that I loved and hated for 10 years, then 9 months.

Is there a limit to the stories we can bear? Is it possible for the memories to usurp the joy of the mundane, and if so, can they somehow still be held as dear without anchoring us to the past?

To repeat the same stories again and again shows how tightly I hold the experiences as markers of identity: getting stitched up by Konstantine the Dentist, escaping the kiss from the Russian soldier on the train, discovering Eden, falling in love with a place and people in a Narnia-like journey 12 years ago…I play these stories on repeat, identifying with the past, bathing in the past until I prune up, because maybe the future scares me a little more than I know.

Alyosha Karamazov once told a group of boys emerging into manhood that one of the most vital things they could do was to remember one good memory from childhood. I’ve always found this ending to The Brothers Karamazov to be anticlimactic, disappointing. But as the years write layers thicker and thicker and the road winds more unexpected than my child self could envision, I nod at Alyosha in understanding. When the future stands over you with a smirk, the past can be a warm hand to hold.

But with the looking back comes the human tendency to dis-member then re-member the past into one where He was not faithful. And if He was then, then His character has rapidly changed in light of the layers that I certainly did not choose.

Bluntness: when I don’t get my way, my heart is revealed as a muscle that pumps disbelief.

Question set number two: how can I re-member the memories that I so often dis-member? How can I love Him more than I love my own little story? How can I skydive trustfully into the future instead of pacing within the confines of a stale old temper tantrum?

The questions remain.

The answers are there, age old and simple, yet as hard to submit to as they were for Abraham, Sarah, Naomi, Job, David and the whole cloud of witnesses.

The answers are there, the Answer is there, waiting with open arms to be the constant I have sought in the files of my own identity. So in a conclusion of the heart, I say that I submit, but that I also know I will have to re-submit by hour, by minute. To unclench my fists and breathe in the next unexpected, beautiful layer.

Jaazaniah*, 2003

Jaazaniah*, 2003

Holding a picture and a “never, never” you were a gritter of teeth and a ram, but because you heard Him you answered yes. You stepped into a heavyset bus with orange curtains in the land of Rus, where you fell and jammed the knee to a bruise, ripening under pale skin. A bumpy endless night follows, with a skipping refrain from a silver Walkman:

And I know that someday soon, you’ll make sense of this despair, and your love, your love, will get me there.

Open the shutters and see the first summer that you were awake, drink the sparkling stars and tall, skinny pines like a shot of vodka, with shivers and burn and clarity.

Earth, rain, mud, sense and a cry, the original cry that was answered with the unexpected, longed for yes.

Through flooded showers with strangers’ hair grabbing at feet like snakes, through mosquitos feasting on flesh layered in sweat and dirt, through a shared mascara and a new friend who shared your name there was that yes,

the yes that answered the question, the original question.

You sat there, twelve and ancient, infinite and tired, tasked with tasking the children with crafts you didn’t understand, and some tasks just don’t make sense in the entropy, and the prayer pours out in all its young, eternal specificity:

“Let it rain God, a rain with drops big like I’ve never seen, but let it be for only five minutes.”

And when the sky immediately rumbles and cries your tears of relief, it is all naturalness to you, but

joy, joy, joy!

Joy in an oversized grey hoodie, running through the forest path in the giddy hope that defines you. Slick with the answer dripping off your face, through your clothes, breathless and known.

I have now seen the One who sees me.

He was in this place and I did not know it.

*Jaazaniah is one of my middle names. It means “the Lord hears.”

Oh My Lady Gaga!

One of the things I love about teaching is that I never know what is going to come out of my students’ mouths. Whether it’s a funny mispronunciation, an over-the-line comment, or a brilliant idea, I almost always have stories to tell at the end of the day. For those who I haven’t updated, since I returned from Russia, I’ve been teaching English to international college students at a local university. Most of my students are from China and the United Arab Emirates, but I also have a Vietnamese and a Russian student. Over the course of the past few semesters, I’ve tried to keep track of the funny, profound, and unexpected things my students have said or done. If you’re in need of a laugh or if you’re just interested as to the funny business that goes on in an ESL classroom, I think you’ll enjoy my list of international student superlatives:

BEST CHINESE IDIOM EVOKING MEMORIES OF NAPOLEON DYNAMITE:

Student: They steal my pocket food.

Me: Pocket food? Like snacks, chips? (Student nods) All I could think of was Napoleon and his tater tots all squishy in the pockets of his linty pants…

BEST MISTAKEN WORD:

Me: Do you know what defective means?

Student: Uh, like a policeman?

Drumroll please, we have a defective detective in the house.

BEST MISPRONUNCIATION:

Student: I don’t like to eat green paper.

Me: Hmm…what do you mean by green paper (over-thinking, thus thinking that it must be the Chinese way of saying lettuce). Sudden realization: Green pepper, Hope. He’s saying green pepper!

BEST SATIRE OF AMERICAN ETHNIC STEREOTYPES:

Me: So are you good at math?

Student (grins, gets a teasing glint in his eye): I’m Chinese.

MOST PERSISTENT:

Me: Class, take out a piece of paper for the quiz.

Student: You did not tell me there was a quiz.

Me: When you’re not in class, you need to ask your classmates what you missed.

Student: I did, and they told me there was no quiz.

Me: It’s in the syllabus.

Student: But you did not tell me.

Me: Well, we’re having it anyway.

Note: it has been quite an adjustment learning to teach students from cultures (in this case, U.A.E.) where this kind of persistence and bargaining is simply the way things are done. I’ve definitely had to learn to be direct and firm.

MOST DARING EXCUSE: A student skipped class. After class was over, two of her friends came up to cover for her.

Student: She got lost.

Me: What do you mean? Where is she?

Student: In the Union (which is a three minute walk to my classroom).

Me: But I don’t understand, how did she get lost?

Student: (Points at male classmate) Usually  he goes around to class with her, but when she’s alone, she cannot distinguish.

Ok. I mean, I would understand if it were the first week of classes, but by week 8, if you don’t know how to get to class, an intervention is in order. I definitely didn’t buy the excuse, and I’m glad I didn’t. As I rode away from campus, I saw her walking toward my building for her next class, clearing lacking no directional skills whatsoever.

"I might be young, but I ain't stupid..." (pinterest.com)

Most likely to end up as a challenge on the Amazing Race: Before spring break, my students excitedly handed me a vacuum packed morsel. “Duck tongue, duck tongue!” they said.

Me: sure, thank you, I’ll try it. By the way, where do you get this? Do you order it online?

When I said this, my quietest student grinned slightly and pulled a manila envelope out of his backpack. The envelope was bursting with duck tongue. Oh boy. I did try it, but I’ll admit that I was a wimp and was not able to finish it. It wasn’t the moist slimy texture that got me, or the flavor of Thanksgiving gizzards mixed with formaldehyde. What got me was the bony CRUNCH in my second bite. Nope. I don’t do cartilage.

BEST REFERENCE TO A TROUBLED DECADE IN RUSSIAN HISTORY:

Me: So, what is the significance of the gun in this story?

Russian student: Well, it is like offer of friendship when the woman offer the gun, because when you offer people gun it is like showing sign of friendship.

At first I was flabbergasted by his answer, when it dawned on me: there was a short section in the chapter where a woman offers two children a stick of gum. I began to laugh and told him I had said gun, not gum. “Unless giving a gun in Russia is a gift?” I teased. He didn’t miss a beat, giving a completely deadpan delivery: “In the 90s.”

BEST NEW PHRASE: although all the above superlatives are certainly noteworthy, none compare with the new phrase coinage that shows the elasticity and infinite possibilities of the English tongue (note: duck tongue is not elastic at all). While tutoring one morning, one of my Chinese students got frustrated and let out what I swore sounded like “Oh my Lady Gaga!”

I laughed, sure I had heard him wrong, and asked him to repeat what he said. “Oh my Lady Gaga!” he said again. “Is that like ‘Oh my gosh?’” I asked. He grinned like a little boy and said, “yes, but I want switch with Lady Gaga, and so I say Oh my Lady Gaga.”  And that, my friends, is the best thing I’ve heard in quite some time.

Now I’m curious, for all you teachers out there, what are some of the funniest or most unexpected things that have come out of your students’ mouths?

Waiting, Meaning, Kingdom

“I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.

Scorched to the root

My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.”-Sylvia Plath, “Elm”

It haunts acutely when she travels alone. A girl, eyes fixated out and beyond, knifed by meaning and meaninglessness. The rhythmic lull of a Soviet era train hums her to thought and she looks through the window-frame to emptiness and beauty. Snowy fields tinted in orange and pink by the sunset, forest that stretches out in monotony, sights gulped by a wait-er, suffering the contraction of time and eternity. A guttural whisper is the only expression of this bursting, bursting, bursting.  2014-02-05 17.03.05

There is more, there is more, there is more.

There is more, you know. It is your life to breathe the truth that there is more. There is meaning in the orange and pink tinted fields, in the rhythmic lull of the train, in the expanse that knifes you. There is more, so why, then, the tears? Why then, the grasping at a mirage of the flawed finite when the infinite is what is more…you know that it is your life to breathe the infinite and make Him known. Yet in the Russian train, in the car, in crunching through leaves on the trails of a college town, you curse the waiting.

2013-12-20 09.13.42

You curse the waiting because all of this meaning is meaningless without that unknown someone you’ve dreamed of, storied, objectified and distorted into something like a god. Because the waiting is a curse, and unfair, and you are wilting and frantic. Because you have done all the things right and all the right things, all the years added up should be enough, and so your eyes rove in the waiting, pitying the self because she is not adored by someone whom she would make her god. 2013-09-25 17.42.09

It is in the now, the waiting, that your life must be stale. It is in the now, in the waiting He is cursing you with, that you wonder why it haunts more and more in the mundane. There is always waiting, but you thought there was a time limit, because the waiting is worthless, and you have an expiration date. And Plath again gives you words: “I am inhabited by a cry.   Nightly it flaps out Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing   That sleeps in me; All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” The girl is greedy, and if she continues, she will suck the life out of another or spill her blood on the altar of self, spinning the story to sustain herself while she waits, unfaithfully.

2014-01-12 23.49.08

But somehow, she is shaken from the ravenousness by simple truth. The truth comes in the soft yet sudden way that it came to Alyosha, the novice shaken out of his idealization through a suffering that led to hopeful reality: ”Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind- now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in the moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. ‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…Three days later he left the monastery, which was also in accordance with the words of his late elder, who had bidden him to ‘sojourn the world.’” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

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The monastery was, for Alyosha, a comfortable place, a place of safety, a place to view the world the way it had always made sense to view it. And through trial and disillusionment, when the mystical didn’t translate into everyday life, when Zosima was un-deified by the stench of death and humanity, only then could he truly understand the meaning of hope. And only then could he leave the place of comfortable ignorance filled with fantasies and embark on his true mission, which lay outside the monastery walls. The monastery was filled with truth, but its stagnancy also reinforced the lies that blinded Alyosha. The truth for the waiting girl: The waiting isn’t worthless. The waiting has meaning. The waiting points to the greater story, the greatest story.

Ann Voskamp’s words bathe the mind that has become soiled with cynicism: “Every tulip only blossoms after cold months of winter wait. Every human ever unfurled into existence through nine long months of the womb waiting. And the only kingdom that will last for eternity still waits, this millennia-long, unwavering-hope for return of its King. Instead of chafing, we accept that waiting is a strand in the DNA of the Body of Christ. That this waiting on God is the very real work of the people of God.” “This waiting on God is the very real work of the people of God.”

Every act of waiting can point to the most important waiting we will ever do, waiting for Christ’s return. And if marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, then the waiting for the fulfillment of good desires is a picture of our hope and expectation for the King to return and restore and herald in a joyful eternity. When I long, my natural inclination is to find a quick fix to douse the ache. To write my own story, to live in my imagination while cursing the reality that I am forced to live. What if I leaned into the longing and looked to Christ in hope, remembering that the hunger is indicative of the eternity and perfection I am waiting for? The longing can’t be filled by a person; it is a hunger pang for Christ that can only be fulfilled in him. But this longing will not be fulfilled completely in this life. May these pangs direct me the the waiting girl to the hope of the Truth. To be unsatisfied, to wait, to long, is not a curse, but a blessing, because in her little story, the girl can let her longings point to the greater story He has swept her into. A story that may be filled with suffering, but ends in joy. A story that on the hard days doubt may tarnish, but ends, indisputably, in confident faith.

Hebrews 11:13. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  

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