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?


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:


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…


Me: Do you know what defective means?

Student: Uh, like a policeman?

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


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!


Me: So are you good at math?

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


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..." (

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.


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?

Learning Tatar

Although Tatarstan is politically a part of the Russian Federation, I am constantly reminded that at the same time, it is a country and culture all its own. Beautiful mosques share the scene with Orthodox churches, Tatar delicacies such as chak-chak and mantiy are served just as often as  borsch and kasha, and most exciting for a language lover, the beautiful yet still-unintelligible sounds of Tatar can be heard alongside Russian on the street, on the radio, and (yikes) even in my classroom.

Tatarstan May Finally Get Lyrics For Its Anthem

The Flag of Tatarstan*The green represents Islam, the red, Russia, and the white line, the peace between the Muslim Tatar majority and the Russian minority.

Over half of the population did not learn Russian as their first language, but rather acquired it in their early years at school while continuing to speak Tatar at home. This bilingual balancing act, although the norm for many teachers and students I’ve talked to, has made a huge impression on me. I find it amazing to watch those at my university speed through a phone conversation in Tatar, answer someone in Russian, then address me in English. When I found out I would be living in Tatarstan for 9 months, I made it my goal to at least learn the basics of Tatar while I was here, and I’ve finally had the time to devote to the study of this difficult yet fascinating language.


To give you an idea of just how different Tatar is from English, take a look at this wonderful little tree diagram of the world’s language families. Although the Foreign Service Institute ranks Russian as of higher difficulty to learn for an English speaker than the Romance languages, what many people don’t realize is that English and Russian are actually in the same language family, Indo-European. Although there are significant linguistic differences between the two, there are actually more similarities than you might think. But Tatar, oh Tatar…Tatar isn’t even in the same language family as English. At the bottom of the diagram, you’ll see a tiny little branch reaching to the left: this represents the Altaic family, of which the most familiar language is Turkish.

Photo Credit:

Chart Credit:

What this means for the language learner beginning from an Indo-European frame of reference is that he has to open his mind to a extremely different way of processing language both grammatically and phonetically. A difficult task, but so far it’s been as fun as it has been frustrating.

Take out that IPA chart and get cracking!

The sounds of Tatar have been more difficult to produce than I expected, since when I first arrived and I was taught how to count to 5, I was praised on how good my accent was. This was due to a few phonemes that exist both in English and Tatar that are not found in Russian, such as [ae], the vowel sound found in “bad,” “cat,” etc. Note, this [ae] sound is written as ә, which was confusing at first.

But as I’ve analyzed the phonemic inventory more closely, it’s become clear that Tatar has sounds I’ve never attempted to make before, except perhaps in Dr. Bird’s phonetics class 🙂  The language is written in Cyrillic, but because there are sounds that do not occur in Russian, there are the added letters:

һ (close to an English h.)

ө (close to the vowel sound in the British “bird,” “word.”)

ә (a as in “back,” “cat,”)

ү (an “oo” sound pronounced further back than the English version.)

ң (ng as in “sing.”)

җ (in between j in “Johnson” and zh in “rouge.”)

These extra letters though, do not represent all of the different sounds. For example, what is written in Cyrillic as г (g) can be pronounced two different ways. Most difficult for me so far has been producing a sound that is close to the English k, but is pronounced further back. In linguistic terms, English the English k ([k])requires you to touch your velum with the back of your tongue, but in Tatar, the k, realized as [q] is often produced by touching the back of your tongue to the uvula. When I hear native speakers do it, it sounds like a k with a popping noise. And that is just one sound out of many; I won’t even get started on vowel harmony.

Let’s Agglutinate!

Although the phonetics of Tatar are difficult, the core of the difficulty for a speaker of an Indo-European language comes in making the mental transition from an inflected grammatical system  to a system of agglutination. In college, we learned the definition of agglutinative by remembering that in these languages, grammatical components and words were glued together (And if I remember correctly, both “glue” and “agglutinative” share the same root.) Both inflected and agglutinative languages use affixes to express grammar, but agglutinative languages are different in that you take a root word and keep stacking suffixes on the end until the word is about a page long. An exaggeration, of course, but that’s what it seems like to a beginner.  Prefixes and prepositions do not exist in an agglutinative languages, but their functions are rather expressed in suffixes that must be added in a specific order. One nice thing about agglutinative languages though, is that a morpheme codes for just one meaning, rather than many, like in Russian. For example, in Tatar, the suffix -ка always denotes that a noun is the direct object, whereas the Russian  -у can denote masculine dative case, feminine accusative case, or even prepositional case.

Here’s an example of this agglutinative magic:

English: In my books

Russian: В моих книгах

Tatar: book: китап (kitap),  plural morpheme: лар (lar), possessive morpheme: ым (iym), time/locational case: да (da)

Order of agglutination: root+plural morpheme+possessive morpheme+case morpheme=

китабларымда (kitablariymda)= in my books

As you can see, what is expressed by three words in both English and Russian is expressed in Tatar in one long, complex word. The system of verbs is similarly complicated, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of understanding Tatar grammar. However, I am happy to say that I have learned quite a few new words and phrases to balance out the intensity of learning grammar. My strategy has been similar to it was when I started Russian, in a word: songs. When I decided I wanted to speak Russia, I printed out song lyrics, translated them, then listened to the songs and practiced them over and over. This was great for pronunciation, memorization, and was much more enjoyable than slaving over a textbook. In addition to learning some basic phrases, such as “исәнмесез” (isanmesez, hello), “рәхмәт” (rakhmat, thank you), and “әйдә” (ayda), I’ve been listening to and translating a simple song with to broaden my vocabulary and become familiar with the phraseology and grammar. It’s already working: today I found this Tatar music video and I was able to pick out the phrases: “You are my love,” and “you are my destiny.” Give it a listen if you’re curious as to how Tatar sounds. Well, that’s it for now! Сау булыгыз! (sau bulighiz, goodbye!)

*Flag of Tatarstan credit: 

A Rant on Poetry

I’ll never forget the smug cynicism I felt last spring when my professor handed us Ezra Pound’s poem “Papyrus.” The poem is as follows:

Spring . . . . . . .

Too long . . . . . .

Gongula . . . . . .

I quickly scribbled my own version to show how much artistic talent I thought a poem like this took. My version went something like this:

Summer . . . . . . .

Too short . . . . . .

Arugula . . . . . .

Unfortunately, my professor overheard the laughter of my two classmates, and had me read my creation to the whole class. I was slightly embarrassed, but I also felt justified in expressing my frustration with modern poetry.

Poetry and I have had a love-hate relationship since I entered college. Before college, I was pretty much unaware that any form of poetry existed beyond your standard rhythm and meter based creation. At this point, I loved poetry. I loved hearing the alliteration and cadence of the Edgar Allan Poe type, and I even felt that I had a knack for writing verse, evidenced by an occasional Facebook note (remember when people wrote those?).

Then, in college, I submitted one of my rhymed masterpieces to the school literary journal, and I heard crickets. When the journal was printed, I found to my bewilderment and dismay that there was not one rhymed poem in the whole book. As I read through the poems, anger started to fester as I realized that I didn’t “get” any of the poems. The word choice seemed random, there seemed to be no unifying theme or structure, but here they were, shouting at me from their cozy black and white abode that they had been good enough to print, while mine hadn’t. I felt the like the awkward outsider not let in on an inside joke.

Even after being slapped with the reality that rhyme was no longer in vogue in the literary world, but was rather something sequestered to cheesy Hallmark cards and children’s books, I refused to give it up. My sophomore year, I started dabbling in free verse, just to see if it was all it was cracked up to be, but I remained loyal to my quatrains. In my creative writing class, we had the chance to read a sample of our work to the class, and I chose to share the rhymed poem that I had put my heart and soul into, and a free verse poem that hadn’t taken me more than a few sittings to write.

I read my rhymed poem to the class, and when I finished, my professor gave me a half bewildered, half-pitying look. He gave me a haphazard tip on how I could improve, but it was clear he was having difficulty showing how much he didn’t like the poem. To get an idea of what the style was like, here’s the last verse:

So bring back color, vibrancy to black and white review,

Define the wine, the bread; refresh with glimpses of the new.

Come break the barricades to meaning guarded by the lies,

And shatter repetition with your wordless loving eyes.

A little shaken, I moved onto my next poem, which was about growing up as a magician’s daughter. Here’s an excerpt from this poem:

On those long car trips home through summery Maine

I leaned my cheek on the sheer glass

following powdered sugar stars on walls of navy ice.

Or if my brother was there

we’d giggle in our late night childish joy,

we were made up characters from a different world

Just a simple description of my childhood, I thought, nothing too special. But after I finished this poem, my professor’s expression completely changed. He loved the poem, and even said he wished he had come up with the phrase “powdered sugar stars.”

I started writing more free verse poetry although I was secretly suspect of its elevated state being a hoax, and my poems started getting into the college literary journal. Although I did work hard on my poems, they still took me less time to write than my rhymed poetry, and I remained simultaneously exhilarated that I had gotten my foot in the door of this literary society that I still didn’t understand, yet critical and disgusted by the poems that I still couldn’t get anything out of.

My poems were free verse now, but they were clear and specific. I viewed my goal as a poet as conveying an idea or emotion with a precision that prose couldn’t give. These other poems seemed to find joy in obscuring meaning.

The more I talked with English majors about my quandary, the more I realized that as a whole, they approached poetry differently than I did. For me, if a poem didn’t “make sense,” the author was doing a disservice to the reader, but for them, poetry wasn’t always supposed to make sense. You weren’t supposed to take apart a poem like you were disassembling an appliance, otherwise, you would kill it. Point taken, I reasoned.  But then, how do you distinguish between a quality poem and a shoddy poem?

Is this

a poem

simply because I

have forced it

into six

neat lines?

I imagined the renowned poets of the 20th century guffawing over beers about how they’d tricked critics into believing their lazy scratchings had artistic value. Williams Carlos Williams would say with giddy tears in his eyes, “and then I wrote about how ‘everything depends on a red wheelbarrow’! And they loved it!”

Beckett would slap his knee heartily and Pound would give Williams a fist bump, and they would continue their poetic scam to the end of their days.

And then there’s the case of Billy Collins, the “everyman’s poet” of the late 20th and early 21st century. Collins said “I think a lot of readers are frustrated with the obscurity and self indulgence of most poetry. I try very assiduously to court the reader and engage him. I am interested more in a public following than a critical one” [].  “America’s most popular poet” has repeatedly proven his finesse in fulfilling this goal; take this poem for example:

Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.


The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,


and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.


When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton


while the other musicians listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius.

This poem is both witty and accessible to the general population. I definitely didn’t feel I was being excluded from an inside joke. Still, I have to wonder what exactly it is that makes this a poem. If you took away the visual structure and made it into a paragraph, it would read just like a fun piece of prose.

So readers, these are my questions: first, what makes a poem a poem? And secondly, what makes a poem a good poem? Am I justified in my frustration with modern and post-modern poetry, or is there something I’m missing? If so, please let me in on the inside joke. In the meantime, I’m going to go write a villanelle.




Why I’m Not Upset that My Score Didn’t Improve

I just took my post-language program oral proficiency interview, and according to the results, I didn’t improve.

I scored a 10 out of 12 before I left, which signifies “advanced plus” proficiency, and I scored that same 10 three months later, after an intensive 9 to 10 hour a week program with some really great teachers and a lot of hard work.





But to be honest, I wasn’t disappointed by that number on the screen, because I know that it didn’t  represent the strides I have made linguistically in the past three months.

To give a little background on why I was taking these tests, along with my Fulbright teaching grant, I also won a supplementary grant  to study Russian for 10 hours a week for a minimum of three months. The program required me to take pre and post program oral proficiency interviews, which I was familiar with since I had to do the same before and after my Critical Language Scholarship in Vladimir. With CLS, we were given an interview on the ACTFL (American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages), and I felt I received a fair score both before and after, Intermediate High and Advanced Low, respectively.  This time though, I was interview through ALTA, a different language service, and when I first took the test, I didn’t feel the results were accurate. I remember before taking the test that my goal was to shoot for an 8, which was the equivalent of ACTFL’s advanced low proficiency, the level I’d attained after CLS. If I got a 9, I’d be really stoked, since I’d spent a good part of the summer watching the Russian news, reading detective novels in Russian, and Skyping with a friend in Vladimir. The test itself went strangely. Unlike my two ACTFL OPIs for CLS, the woman on the other line seemed inexperienced and a bit flustered. Nervous, I started off speaking very fast and in a huff she told me “it will go better for you if you slow down!” Our conversation ranged from where I wanted to be in ten years to the environment to the three questions I would ask Barack Obama if I had a chance, and although I got my point across, I still felt like I was grasping for words and stuttering like a stuck record. When I got my test results back and I saw the 10, one part of me was excited, the other part perplexed. On the one hand, the results seemed to prove what my family and friends kept telling me (you are fluent, I know it!) to which every time I responded, “no, I am most definitely not.” When I got to Moscow, I definitely didn’t feel like a “10,” struggling to understand what the server at MacDonalds was saying and struggling to get past my shyness to do the simplest of things. No, I thought, that test couldn’t have been accurate.

Anyway, when I got to Elabuga and began my language program, although I technically had a high speaking level, in practice, I didn’t have the confidence I needed to function in public or at work. I avoided going to stores where I had to ask someone to get something off the shelf for me(these are everywhere in Russia) because I got so nervous I could barely stutter out simple words like black tea, let alone pytilitrovaya voda, the term for a five liter jug of water. For the first two months, there was a soundproof wall between me and the outside world, no matter what my test results said. And then, around the third month in, the fear that I had had when going to stores or interacting with others began to gradually melt away. I felt myself begin to ask for things in stores with more confidence, even if my requests and sentences were littered with mispronunciations and mistakes. I’ll never forget the euphoria of realizing that I could book a taxi for myself and that it would actually come, that as one of my favorite proverbs say, “my tongue could get me all the way to Kiev.” Before long, I was comfortably doing these things, as well as learning vocabulary and phrases that would help me in the Russian workplace. I felt my grammar getting better, my phrases flowing more freely, and I felt myself beginning to actually think in Russian. Although I’ve been to Russia many times, I had never before felt the confidence that I could actually get things done in the language, but this time, although it was unquantifiable, I knew had finally broken through this barrier.

When I got the results back this time, of course I was hoping for the 11, the “almost fluent” score, but I think I knew that if I rated myself, I would give myself a 10, which I never would have done back in August.

My whole life, I’ve tended to give too much weight to the grade, to the lifeless two dimensional mark, and in doing so, I’ve often missed the value in the process, in the subjective experiences that an A or an improvement on a twelve point scale can’t quantify. And for the first time in my life, I looked at that 10 and realized just how little of my journey it represented, that it couldn’t see the September girl scared to set foot in a store transformed to the January one who sometimes even strikes up conversations with cashiers. I looked at the score, laughed and thought, “to hell with it.” And maybe that’s the biggest achievement of all.

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