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. (

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.

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Malone for 2016? Anyone?



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.

A (Coffee) Drinking Game for Teachers

For most teachers across the nation, school begins this week. My classes begin tomorrow, and although I am ecstatic about meeting my new students, I also know that to survive, I have to arm myself with a very good sense of humor. You never know what’s going to come out of students’ mouths, and a lack of humor will certainly lead to a rabid breakdown in the teacher’s room. So. Since it’s generally a terrible idea to drink on the job, I’ve modified my list of likely ESL first-week moments to include coffee, which we all know serves as both an emotional and physical support for teachers worldwide. So here goes. Get your Keurig ready, and let the classes begin…

A student plagiarizes=Steal the student’s coffee and drink it in front of him. Tell him that in your culture, coffee is common property.

A student sasses you= A shot of espresso to imbue you with the necessary comeback skills. No more George Constanza reaction time for you.

A student calls you by the wrong gender=

Women: a tall nonfat pumpkin spice latte with a dash of cinnamon, no whip

Men=black coffee that you roasted with your own hipster machine (you know, the one you like to bring into every conversation).

A student makes you cry=5 scoops of espresso chip ice cream, no questions asked.

A student makes a funny mistake and you handle it gracefully= A pour-over, because you are just so dang smooth.

A student makes a funny mistake and you burst into laughter=Make the coffee extra hot; scald your tongue as an act of penance.

Your student criticizes your teaching style=Make the student run to the cafeteria and buy you a coffee. How’s that for kinesthetic learning?

A student asks about your marital status= A cup of joe in a “World’s Greatest Mom” mug.

A student thanks you for the class=No coffee needed, the kind words will be enough of an adrenaline shot to get you through at least the rest of the day :).

Happy first week of classes!

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.”


This space has been silent since October. Part of it was the thyroid problem that sneakily sucked my energy during the winter months. But mostly, I think it’s that I’ve felt I’ve had nothing to say that I didn’t say during that 9 month stretch as a foreigner who bungee jumped every morning into the unknown.

Nine months was more like nine years or a century, and I realize that just because I can’t talk about it doesn’t mean I’ve said everything I have to say, will need to say.

The thoughts that come are incoherent but acute, little knives of memory and meaning.

I walked in the rain yesterday, and the chilly little drops slipped through my hair to my skull.

I smile and laugh when a Russian grandmother voice chastises me: Ты что без шапки!? What are you doing without a hat!? But despite the voice, I’m not there and am free to tempt fate by dangerously walking in the rain без шапки. I miss the voice of the collective Russian grandmother, but I shiver at the thought of going back.

On the walk I have nothing except my iPhone, snug in the back pocket of my jeans.  I start to think about the nights I treated it almost like salvation, sobbing into it during the breakdowns (there were many) to hear the voice of my parents, one constant when I knew no one and nothing and I couldn’t even leave my Soviet-era obschezhitiye without getting lost in the city.

I think about the many items that remain in our lives, constant, indifferent to events and changes, reminders of time’s brevity and how old we’ve become. The shoes I am wearing, L.L. Bean hiking boots, were the same ones that molded to my feet 6 years ago in the mountains of New York on that emotional pre-Gordon kayaking trip. I now walk in them years later as a different person, and I feel there has to be some significance in this.

There has to be some significance in the fact that inanimate objects can serve as milestones that invite us to consider the connections and continuity of our lives, of how a dress can be so much more than a dress- because I was wearing that dress when I talked to him for the first time,

when I found out I made it through the first round of the competition for a ticket to teach abroad,

when I gave that presentation in Russian, a whole twenty minutes long!

With each wearing of those boots, that dress, I am reminded that with every experience, we all deepen into a more complicated story that becomes harder and harder to tell.

I can’t quite form the significance into words, and for a moment, I think it means I shouldn’t write about it just yet.

I teach academic English to international students, and I attempt to pound into them the importance of well-structured essays that have a clear thesis statement and sufficient support. I have to do the same as a Masters student, to weekly churn out assignments that exemplify the ever-important criteria of organization and coherent thought.

I’m tired of it.

Maybe I want to think and write incoherently, because there is beauty in the thinking process, in the unrobotic lack of a clear thesis statement for this blog post,

for the walk in the rain,

for this process of processing Russia.

Instead of forcing myself to structure it, wouldn’t it be nice if the conclusion wasn’t the goal, and in a rebellious, healthy act I could just st

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