Oliver Cross: teaching language throws up gaps in my knowledge

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IN RARE ATTEMPT to make myself socially useful, I sometimes work as a volunteer reading helper for the many pupils at the inner-city Leeds City Academy who have recently arrived in England.

I listen to them read, correcting them and testing them along the way, and often end up thinking that I have learned more about English than they have.

For example, how weird English spelling is; I’m forever telling children that in words like knock or knees (which I try not to put together because that might prove embarrassing for some pupils), they have to pretend, in speaking, that the ‘k’ isn’t there, although in writing it is.

There’s also words like ‘light’ or ‘cough’ where the ‘gh’ becomes, to put it mildly, problematical.

Still, the academy pupils who have, say, Arabic or Urdu as a first language (and the academy pupils share about 40 first languages between them ) cope remarkably well.

Recently, a diligent East European boy asked me to explain the meaning of the expression ‘tell me about it’ and I said, in a very confident way, because, after all, I’m English and he’s not, ‘Well...’ then spluttered to a halt because I realised I wasn’t really sure myself..

It’s one of those phrases which, like schoolyard jokes or the word ‘doable’ appear from nowhere.

Somebody must have said it first but we’ll never know who, which is how the combined efforts of the common people can sometimes outsmart those who would like to direct what we think and say, such as politicians, social media exhibitionists, Kim Jong-un or columnists unlike myself.

Because I have a very literal mind, there was a gap of several months between my first becoming aware of ‘tell me about it’ and my being able to slip it casually into conversation.

So when people said ‘tell me about it’, I thought I’d been invited to expand further on some topic I’d just brought up, which drove my listeners to despair because ‘tell me about it’, usually voiced in a sarcastic tone, means (I think) ‘you don’t need to tell me about it because I already know as much about it as you do.’

Which makes helping children to understand English hard because four easily-understood words don’t necessarily add up to an easily-understood phrase.

I tried explaining this to the academy pupil but I think he was left none the wiser.

There was also a phrase, ‘what are you like?’, which arose at about the same time and which I had equal difficulty adjusting to but which I now understand is a dismissive expression meaning that I’ve said or done something a bit silly.

I used to hear it a lot, and regrettably still do.

When it was new, though, I was puzzled because I couldn’t understand why anybody would suddenly want to make a psychological evaluation of me and thought I had misheard the question ‘what do you like?’ – to which I tended to reply ‘pies, curry and Mariella Frostrup’, which did my cause no good at all.

I was once reading with a very bright Portugese girl who suddenly, possibly because she was bored, asked me, after skating over all sorts long or difficult words, what ‘so’ meant.

I had to look it up in a fairly basic dictionary.

I discovered that in actual fact it has no fewer than 21 meanings, not including the one that annoys me most, which is a sort of prelude to statement by a columnist or blogger, as in ‘So, Mr Cameron says...’

I don’t think in this case that ‘so’ has any definite meaning, it’s just a prelude to making an opinionated statement; a sort of clearing of the throat.

Why I’m in sombre mood for death march pub reading

YOU FIND me in rather a sombre mood, as befits a man preparing to deliver a meditation on the inevitability of death.

This is not by popular demand but because a group of very talented people I sometimes hang around behind have asked me to contribute to a mortality-themed evening of music and gallows humour and bad puns at the Chemic Tavern in Woodhouse, which can’t be accused of courting cheap popularity.

They want me to read sections from my popular book Cats and Other Party Animals, which covers such subjects as the death of my mother, the death of my cat, the death from cancer of a very good friend and funeral practices in ancient Malta. I realise, of course, that the title is a little misleading, but I didn’t think Dead Cats and Other Party Animals would get them queuing down the aisles at Waterstones.

The evening has been put together by Dibbs Dibblethwaite and the Jazz Murderers (who were known as The World of Leather before it was noticed that the name attracted too many unsavoury types), and Mr Dibblethwaite himself has created an arrangement of the Death March by someone-or-other (I’m not very musical) which will be played as I read from my book, creating, I very much hope, a satisfying interlude of quiet reflection, so long as things don’t get out of hand.

The Dibblethwaites have promised me that after the performance, there will be an opportunity for the audience to buy signed copies of my book, which would make an ideal Christmas present for the recently bereaved.

Classic movie not so good second time around

ON SUNDAY, I saw a Leeds film festival screening of the classic 1930 German movie The Blue Angel at Leeds Town Hall. It was dreadful.

Well, not entirely.

It was interesting to see cinema failing to make a smooth transition from the silent screen to the new talkies, so that the cast overacted ludicrously, making melodramatic gestures when they could have expressed themselves just by speaking, and the director, Josef von Sternberg, clearly didn’t know what to do with the sounds at his disposal.

Long sections of the film show people doing things very slowly and in total silence. It’s not gripping.

But the project is saved by the young Marlene Dietrich, playing a tarty-type with very little heart. She was not quite ready to sound sultry and knowing, so the wonderful song Falling in Love Again doesn’t work as well as it did as she grew older.

Still, even half-dressed in very silly costumes, she holds the screen with such authority that I frequently forgot to read the sub-titles. I was watching a star being born.

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