Say What you Mean!

 

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It’s a rare day now if the news does not begin with some horrific atrocity having been visited upon innocent civilians somewhere in the world. Little wonder that authorities, civil agencies, police forces etc have become jumpy. But I had to laugh when I read the story, today of a young boy in Lancashire having to be questioned by police because he’s written that he lives in a ‘terrorist’ house.

What he’d meant to write was ‘terraced’; an easy mistake to make, although I expect the dreaded OFSTED terrorists would themselves have something to say regarding the spelling standards of the ten year olds at the school. The internet is littered with student howlers such as this, many of them hilarious: Q. Where was the American Declaration of Independence signed? A. At the bottom.

See what I mean? Most demonstrations of lack of understanding are amusing, at least. But I’d guess that this time, with the way people feel about terrorists the incident was less entertaining and rather more uncomfortable. In any case, the family of the child has complained at his having been interrogated.

But it makes me wonder what proportion of the world’s problems are caused by communication difficulties. I’d say most of them [that is if you interpret communication loosely and include body language and cultural customs as well as written and verbal communication]. Then there is a further complication in the explosion of technical means of communication-email, texting and social networking; so many ways that misunderstandings begin. And once a misunderstanding has begun the difficulties can escalate in the tap of a key. I’m not suggesting a terrorist wearing a suicide belt can be talked out of their ‘mission’ here, but I’m guessing that the circumstances that have lead to extremism may have begun with communication mismatches.

I’ve just experienced this with members of my own family whilst attempting to set up a meeting from our spread out locations. I’m guessing the email I sent expressing my own thoughts was interpreted in a negative way that was not meant, resulting in an entire cancellation of said meeting. Ho hum…

For anyone who is interested in writing [anything] all this misinterpretation teaches a strong lesson in how to use language. We should be clear and concise. We should have an unambiguous, unmistakeable image in our own mind before we set finger to keyboard. Our understanding and knowledge of spelling and grammar should be comprehensive.

Verbal interactions involve their own difficulties, don’t they? We evolved using both sound and body language in our dealings, making a phone call more of a tricky action than we imagine. I ‘m sure the blind must become adept at hearing every nuance, double entendre and omission in a conversation but most of the rest of us will not have developed this skill.

Perhaps we should all revert to our most basic ways of showing others what we think or feel. After crying, the first thing a baby learns is to smile. We can’t smile in emails, texts or phone calls but hey-help is at hand with emoticons. There you go! Forget Esperanto. Use the new universal language.

 

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Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!

                Whilst there is an increasing distance of years between my [proper] working life and retirement, there are still situations and occurrences that remind me of it. My last years were as a first school teacher. Seven year olds. Children of this age and younger retain an egocentric personality. They want attention. They crave praise. They want to stand out, be heard. What they patently do not want is to be ignored, especially by the adults charged with their care. The skill of an infant teacher lies, principally in managing to give each and every one of the children in their care the conviction that they are infinitely special and unique-which of course, they are.

                And what is it about adult life that reminds me of this? It is Facebook behaviour. Why? Because without exception, every post you read, watch, appreciate, scoff at has been displayed for the purpose of nurturing the ‘friend’s’ ego.

                I once shared an enormous classroom area with another teacher. There were, at any time, between sixty and seventy small children in this area, all clamouring for attention, for their shrill, little voices to be heard. As teachers we learned to capitalise on this desire for attention; we harnessed it. We used it to enhance experience. We facilitated ‘speaking and listening’ sessions. In those days we simply called it ‘sharing’. Of course there were very many tots and only a limited slot available. It was over-subscribed. Certain confident, precocious, verbose children dominated the session. My teacher partner conceived the brilliant idea of issuing ‘sharing’ tickets, like library tickets, that, once used could not be re-issued until every child had had a turn…Naturally there were, besides those who monopolised the session, some who never uttered, who had to be coaxed and cajoled into issuing a few words.

                On Facebook everyone [I do not except myself from this] wants attention. There are some who feel moved to offer up every nano-moment of their day, from what they’re cooking for dinner to what they can see from their window. There are those who feel the need to change their profile picture with monotonous frequency and elicit a gushing flow of complimentary comments. There are those like myself who post up album after album of snaps, [although I do try to keep them to a modest number-nobody is going to plough through 200 photos, wherever you’ve been]. And there are those who, in the absence of any pearls of wisdom to impart rake up quotes and sayings to share, often accompanied by pictures-flowers, baby animals, rainbows. These missives litter the screen like the pavement outside MacDonalds.

                The fact is, just like a class of small children, everyone wants to talk but nobody really wants to listen. Social networking? More ‘personal broadcasting’ perhaps?

It’s Only Words

                Does it matter if language disappears? Languages, of course have been disappearing at the rate of knots for many years. Some have never had any written form, so can only be sustained by anyone who cares enough to perpetuate them. There are around 6,700 languages spoken in the world but half may be lost before the century ends. Many would say it was a good thing, a blessing; that it might lead to less misunderstanding, more global cohesion, but our language is what defines us. It is our frame of reference and the means on which our culture rests. Cavemen communicated with their paintings on the walls, their own language, then came hieroglyphics and so written language developed in myriad directions.

                As a child at primary school, learning ‘English’ in the fifties, the exercises I undertook were very different to those taught and practised in schools today. There was nothing specific to address ‘speaking and listening’. Our early writing was ‘copy writing’. Those who’d whisked through their first set of reading books [‘Janet and John’ for me] and picked up the basics could begin their own amoebic scribbling, writing ‘news’ or rudimentary stories. We laboured over grey workbooks, completing page after page of exercises that involved completing phrases and sayings eg ‘a stitch in time saves ____’ or ‘many hands make light ____’; or we’d have had to learn collective nouns- ‘a ______ of geese’, ‘a _____ of sheep’, ‘a ______ of fish’ –or even, ‘a flock of _____’!

                Oddly, I enjoyed completing these exercises. They were like games or puzzles to me, except that I was not allowed to race ahead with them, or if I did my prize was to ‘help’ someone who was struggling, not a task I relished.

                I would guess there are few children-or adults these days who would know what the collective noun for porpoises is or what you should not put all your eggs in. But does any of it matter? I feel that it does, because the more our language shrinks, the less we have at our disposal to make ourselves understood, and misunderstandings are the cause of many of the world’s troubles.

                Texting, emails, symbols for words, abbreviations, acronyms-these are all the tools of expediency that we’ve come to expect, and from which we can never look back. This is progress. But I still say that the bedrock of language must never be dumbed down, never be forgotten, or we will have less to communicate with than the cavemen did!