Monday, 21 February 2011

Educating Zenia

Words, words, words... I love ‘em.

Ask anyone who even vaguely knows me and they’ll tell you that I can waffle for my nation at the drop of a hat (and frequently do).

But I've been venturing into virgin territory over the past few months. New strange and intimidating phrases have entered my vocabulary – simple past perfect, imperative pronouns, the rather too Teutonic sounding gerund – as I try to get my head around the sometimes clumsy building blocks that make up the language that seems so natural and obvious to me.

No, I haven’t been sent to the bottom of the class for a misplaced apostrophe (heaven forbid!). I have been asked to act as an English tutor to my 11-year-old dyslexic Greek niece.

‘So what?’ I hear you cry. ‘How hard can it be?’

And the answer is: Much, MUCH harder than you might imagine.

I grew up back in Blighty at a time when the Old School teaching of grammar had been consigned to the back of a dusty cupboard in the staff room. We were taught the structure of the language in a touchy-feely, hands-on, label-free way.

A sort of education by osmosis, if you will.

It’s not my place to say whether this was a good thing or not. It didn’t seem to do too much harm to my own use of the language - possibly because I spent most of my childhood with my nose buried in a book, allowing the correct prose of the published ones to seep unnoticed into my consciousness. But the truth is, I managed to pass my exams (even some with flying colours) and dive into the world of work (with words as my tools, no less) without knowing one end of a past participle from the other of a reflexive pronoun.

As it turns out, that’s a bit of a problem when teaching English to non-native speakers.

And when you add the joys of dyslexia to the mix, it makes for quite a ride.

It could be much worse. Zenia is only mildly dyslexic and she loves stories, so we're not up against the classic fear and aversion of the written word that some dyslexic kids have.

…she is what used to call a Little Minx, with a good dash of laziness added to the mix. She’s cute and funny and affectionate - and more likely to take a wild guess at what we’re reading, or bat her eyelids and crack a joke, than get down to nuts and bolts of adverbs.

She’s my niece, and I love her. But my twice weekly sessions with her have me veering wildly from the bi-polar extremes of triumphant joy (“By George, she’s got it!”) and utter despair that makes me want to bang my head repeatedly against the desk for a bit of light relief.

It’s not the classic word blindness or confusing letters that present the biggest challenge. In fact, we have a good laugh at the mental images summed up by confusing ‘babysitting’ with ‘daddysitting’ or Zenia’s strangulated attempts to pronounce illogically spelled gems like ‘laughter’, 'eight' or ‘cough’. Nor is it her habit of reading sentences backwards when I ask her to translate them back to Greek.

It’s the little tricks that her mind has devised over the years to cover up her uncertainty, insecurity or sheer simple fact that she’d much rather be watching TV, playing computer games or cleaning her toenails than sitting at a desk with Auntie Mandi in strict school ma’am mode.

For the first year or so in Greece, about half of my grasp of the language was based on semi-educated guesses, so I’m pretty adept at spotting when my young pupil is taking a wild stab based on recognition of a single word rather than making the effort of reading the whole sentence.

And I’ve getting better at deflecting her attempts to go off on a tangent that has as much to do with the past continuous as Telly Tubbies have to do with Chaucer.

I’ve even managed to use Zenia’s taste for the theatrical to my advantage by acting out with her extracts from the glorious writings of Roald Dahl, before going through to spot the adjectives, propositions, a collection of tenses and participles, and the occasional gerund.

It’s hard work, and sometimes I wonder if we're achieving anything at all.

Then, when I'm least expecting it, she floors me by accurately identifying the difference between the gerund and the past continuous, explaining it with a logic that makes so much more sense than the academic defintion in the musty, dusty text books I’ve had to consult in preparation to teach her.

As native English-speakers we tend to think our language is a doddle.

But just try deconstructing it and analysing it to explain how it works to someone who didn’t take it in with their mother’s milk, Blue Peter, Enid Blyton and Dr Who, and you’ll soon realise what a cussed tongue it is to learn (and teach).

So, next time you're tempted to mock a foreigner’s accent or sentence construction - don’t.

There’s a good chance that they’re more grammatically correct than you...


  1. I totally agree with you. English Grammar is really irregular. I'm no expert, by any means, I've been educated in English Language, Linguistics and Literature and I enjoy the language but I am very relaxed in how I use it on my blog. I know, sometimes, I submit mistakes and what not but I don't allow myself to worry or get stressed about it. I write for other medias where I do concentrate more and check my work more carefully. Blogging is my hobby.
    I remember reading a great, quirky poem when I was at college, I'll try and find it, about English spelling being illogical.
    I wish you all the luck in the world on your venture with your niece. What a worthwhile thing to be doing, making such a difference. Well done sweetheart. And don't bang your head too hard xx

  2. English is one of the hardest languages to learn. Fact! All the more shameful that other nations seem to learn it so well at a young age. I heard some Dutch kids being interviewed on telly talking about football and they were shamefully fluent for 10 year olds.

    The best way as always is to immerse yourself so talking English to her as much as possible will help as much as sitting down and learning the building blocks to her. The reason why they consigned grammar to the back is quite simple - language is a living thing and it does change.

    Well done though. I understand your frustration in a slightly different way - I had to tutor my younger sister through CSE Maths when she just didn't get it and I would spend hours with her trying to make her understand stuff that I just got. She struggled with conventions like why is a minus times a minus a plus - which is understandable but we'd get past it and start again the next time! Arrrgh.

    Good luck with it.