By Erin D’Amelio

Realizations sometimes sneak up on you in the oddest of ways. I think that’s the case for most of them, really, but the worst kind of realization is one that you’ve latently believed for the longest of times yet never attached words to that understanding.

Such a realization occurred to me just the other day. I had been reading an essay of Stephen Fry’s, “Don’t Mind Your Language”, which, among other brilliant things, discusses the structural impositions of language on its beauty. In other words, grammar and our stringent adherence to it get in the way of our enjoyment of language. Think about it: How delightful is it to listen to someone ebulliently roll nouns, verbs and adjectives off his or her tongue as a child would enthusiastically release marbles from his hand? I was reminded of a quote that I absolutely adore, and that I even read to my students on my first day at SMK PGAS, that I want to use to illustrate my point (but I’ll shorten it, since it’s quite long). Robert Pirosh, in a letter to potential employers in the movie business, once said this:

“I like words. I like fat butter words such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty… I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, Elysium, halcyon.”

Both Fry and Pirosh blatantly smacked me in the face with their message: the layers upon layers upon layers of history and influences and mutations of the English language have afforded every speaker of the tongue to manipulate it and produce complexly beautiful and beautifully complex utterances that, no matter what language you speak, can be a veritable concert of bewitching sounds. And herein lay my realization: My students don’t get that.

I touched upon this topic in a previous post, this battle between communication and grammar, but I only constrained myself to lamenting the fact that my students hold correctness over trial and error in such high regard. But the problem, I fear, has additional, even more trenchant complications: they don’t seem to understand how wonderful the language can be. Now, let me first say that I don’t believe that other languages are incapable of musicality, for I have certainly found that all languages have a lilting manner to them if you phrase things well enough, nor do I believe that other languages cannot be complex. I’m talking specifically about the differences between learning a language to simply pass a test and learning a language because of genuine interest. English, to my students, is merely a subject in school, a subject of an exam in which they need to do well. In fact, in 2016, English will be a compulsory pass subject for the Form 5 students in order to continue their studies, so the pressure is on to know how to use the language. But when they think of English and only dwell on its technicalities, its labyrinthine codes and regularities, and how to rotely memorize them, my students exclude the beauty of the language from their understanding of it.

I don’t even know if my students are aware of English’s beauty. In some ways it’s understandable: in Malay, words have multiple uses: the word baik, for example, could mean anything from good, morally correct, considerable, full, or well-timed depending on context. In English, however, there is nearly a word for every nuance, every feeling. Guiltless, honorable, and impeachable are all synonyms, according to the thesaurus, yet guiltless means being innocent, honorable means bringing or worthy of honor, and unimpeachable means that one is not to be doubted or questioned. While I think that variety is incredible, the choices can be overwhelming to a language learner, and that challenge could incite a rallying cry to overcome it or a whimper of resignation. Let’s just say that not many shouts are heard in the classroom at SMK PGAS.

So where is my responsibility in this battle? My task as an ETA functions primarily in the prescriptive grammar sense: to communicate the basics of English through grammar and essential vocabulary. For what use is it to throw uncommon yet delightful words their way- atavism, celerity, diaphanous- if they struggle with the difference between his and her? These students (and I generalize merely to make a point) are at such a state of comprehension where these pleasurable and exact words have the unintended power to befuddle them, to cloud the murky waters of their knowledge further, which is not what I want to do. And yet, and yet… the words sounds too expressive to ignore and too special to store them away for that moment when happy is ready to turn into joyous, mad into furious. But there might not be much that I can do with the time I have left here. It seems that my students are slaves to the systems, their brains beaten of their knowledge of syntax and the proper vocabulary, not using the language simply because they intrinsically enjoy it, and three months (holy cow) cannot revert such tenacious programming. I suppose the adage, “you need to know the rules to break them” applies here, though I worry that once the exams receive their final, mechanical answer, the machinery that set it there will collapse with a crash of good riddance.

This may seem like part open love-letter to the English language, and part grievance for the perspective on English that I see from many of my students. One of my motivations to come here was a love for my mother tongue and all of its idiosyncrasies, its stubbornness and flexibility, its vexatious habits and lyrical merriment and the desire to share it with others. It breaks my heart to wrestle with student interest with the language; sometimes I feel as though they pay attention because they like me rather than the subject I teach them. But, as a self-proclaimed word lover, I won’t give up on trying. If I can light the fire of inspiration in at least one of my students, then I can leave Malaysia content that I made a difference.

My name is Erin D’Amelio and I’m going to Malaysia for ten months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Over the next 10 months I will be submitting regular journal entries of this incredible adventure, documenting my thoughts and experiences. The views and beliefs I will present in these articles are my own; they do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. Below are the articles, in order of publication. Just click on any link and continue the journey with me.
An Unforgettable Journey

How Does One Get a Fulbright, Exactly?
And Then We Wait
Sensory Overload
(Almost) Hitting the Ground Running
Mercurial Days
Language and Tennis
Land of the Wholehearted People
A Mighty and Powerful Mango Tree
The Beauty in Spontaneity
The Eternal Battle: Communication Versus Grammar
My Family is Awesome, But Destructive
Breaking Fast
The Beauty of English