What A Terrible Language

In his book A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain included a section entitled “The Awful German Language.” Here’s a brief quotation to get this post started:

“A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is. Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.”

While I certainly would have agreed with Twain during the decade or so that I attempted to learn that “awful language,” I have also come to realize by teaching English that my native tongue is not much kinder to language learners. My students have particular trouble with phrasal verbs, which are basically verbs that are followed by a preposition.

Don’t feel bad if I lost you just there; in fact, for about 13 years between being in eighth grade and actually teaching eighth-graders, I wasn’t able to tell my ass from an adjective. So, as a quick refresher, consider the verb “look.” I can add different prepositions to the word, such as “up” or “down.” With “look up” and “look down,” I may be indicating a direction in which my listeners should direct their gazes, but these particular phrasal verbs also have other meanings. “Look up” can also mean to search for information in a work of reference, and “look down on” can also mean to regard someone with disappointment or disrespect.

But then consider something that looks simple at first glance, but which can get pretty hairy, especially if you’re trying to explain it to a room of language learners. (This may also put to rest the claim that if someone speaks a language fluently, then he or she should naturally be able to teach it, no sweat): I submit to you the verbal phrases “close up” and “close down.”

They look like simple opposites, right? But then you realize “close up” is maybe an adjective, since it describes a type of photography angle, and doesn’t that mean you need a hyphen between the two words, as in, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Spielberg!”

But wait, “close down” is completely different. It means to shut or deactivate something, right? And come to think of it, “close up” can also mean the same thing, as in “Let’s close up the shop,” but then in that case the “s” is no longer pronounced like an “s,” but rather like a “z.” And “Close Up” is also the name brand of toothpaste that you keep in your desk for the days that the cafeteria serves pungent food (ie, weekdays).

And this is just an easy example. Try to think of all the uses of the word “get,” and you’ll be happy to go back to the three words above. “Get,” on the other hand, can be mixed around so much that it makes your head hurt and your stomach feel vaguely like you got bonked in the nuts.

How am I supposed to teach this language??

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One thought on “What A Terrible Language

  1. For a while people at work nicknamed me “the Grammarian”. They dropped the name but I’m still asked to proofread everyone’s important emails for no reason other than the fact that I was briefly involved in the company’s Toastmasters group.

    So I’m not bad at knowing my own mother tongue (big deal) … I have NO clue how to explain crap like “close up”.

    It isn’t just you, Hildetand.

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