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?

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