As some of you know, I work at a small private school that just opened in January. I teach science and math to four girls in grades 7 and 9, and English as a second language to a group of Muslim women. I’ve been teaching math and science for years, but I’m new at teaching English. It’s really made me think about the vagaries of this weird and wonderful language of ours.
The head of our ESL department has a standard answer when the students are befuddled: “Crazy English.” What else can you say when trying to explain why ‘though’, ‘bough’, ‘enough’ and ‘trough’ have the same spelling, but completely different sounds? Why the present and past tense of the verb ‘ to read’ are spelled exactly the same, but pronounced differently? Or try explaining the difference between ‘slender’ and ‘skinny’, or ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ – which one of the students thought was a man’s name.
My students are Arabic speakers and Arabic doesn’t use articles or prepositions, so they wonder why we bother with ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘to’ and ‘the’. “I am going store” conveys the same meaning as “I am going to the store”, so why bother with those annoying little words that are so easily misplaced?
Every language has its quirks, but ours seems to have more than its share. “I before e, except after c, or when sounded like a, as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’.” Crazy English! To help the students learn vocabulary, we sometimes play Go Fish with picture and word cards. First, the students had to learn the game, so we taught them with playing cards. Most of them are still a little shaky on recognizing long vowels, so “Do you have an ace?” comes out as “Do you have an ass?” When I pointed out the difference there were a lot of blushes and giggles. And when we ask questions, why do we have to turn the word order around? “You are going shopping?” with a raise in pitch at the end makes the meaning clear, so why say “Are you going shopping?”
I have a lot of admiration for my students, most of whom are in their early to mid-twenties, in a foreign country, trying to learn the language while coping with young families. I often wish, for their sakes, that English didn’t have so many exceptions to the rules. But we muddle along, and slowly but surely Haifa and Lama and Eman and Fatima and the others are starting to make sense of our crazy English.