Friday, January 09, 2004


This check cashing place stoled [sic] $85 from me.”

So read the message painstakingly markered on a sandwich board worn by the one-man picket line I saw downtown yesterday. I didn’t stop to get the details; I figured he must have a legitimate beef if he’s willing to stand in the cold and explain his plight to complacent passers-by. And yet I wondered how much that “stoled” was taking away from the serious reception of his message. Or was it just me?

See, I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately.

There’s a sign outside a furniture store near my place of work that advertises a free entry into a drawing for a harly davisons motorclcye, free with every purchased. I have to say there’s something about those and other errors on that sign that make me leery of shopping at that store. A little part of me fears I won’t be able to communicate with the people who work there.

I don’t like that part of me.

What’s that statistic say? That something like 90% of all messages are transmitted and received non-verbally? I’m not sure how They calculate these things in clear statistics like that, but it certainly feels true. So why should poor grammar be such a roadblock for me?

I’ve just begun the process of getting credentialed to teach adult English as a Second Language. This seems a good fit for me—I love language and (just as I enjoy learning other languages) will enjoy helping others communicate better in English. It’s something I’ve been doing informally for a while anyway, and I think what motivates me is my own awareness of sounding like a mentally challenged third-grader when speaking either of my two foreign languages.

Have you ever had a relationship (even a brief one—a.k.a. a fling) in another language? There’s something very frustrating about wanting to say, perhaps, “There’s this look you have that’s very arresting in nature. I feel somewhat off-balance when you look at me like that—like you know something I don’t and would regret knowing if I did,” and instead saying something about the equivalent of “Your face makes me sad.”

So, last summer when I was in Malta and a German acquaintance said things like, “We are having these [zeez] meetings all the [zuh] time in the [zuh] mornings,” I would (at his request, of course, that I help him with his English) explain how and why “we have meetings every morning” is a sufficient and more common way of expressing the same idea.

But then, there are infinitely many ways to convey a message, and aren't the idiosyncratic expressions of second-language learners what make their speech so captivating? Really, is “your face makes me sad” that far off base?

I’ve traveled a little distance, however, from my original point, which was that a few letters can make a big difference in whether or not one’s true intention will be effectively communicated. This idea hit home one day when I was in high school and my Mom, who’s really named Carmelita Konrad, received a letter addressed to Carnekuta Jibrad (say it aloud in a mean voice—it sounds really intimidating). It seems whoever typed the envelope had his or her right hand over to the left by one key [what does your name become? I’m Jusa Jibrad or Losa Lpmrad, depending on in which direction I’m off].

If I were into New Year’s resolutions, I’d resolve not to equate poor spelling and grammar with bad ideas or a lack of intelligence. It’s not like I do this, ultimately, now—but I’m tempted sometimes and I don’t like that. Even if grammatical skills were a true measure of one’s intelligence, it would be, at most, one type of intelligence out of many. Would Nietzsche have needed the ability to spell Nietzsche in order to prove the worth of his ideas? Kahlil Gibran? What of those who don’t even communicate their ideas in words—or more interestingly—their art, their emotions, their music?

It’s a process, though. So if you write me an e-mail that doesn’t contain a single period and says things like “whose comming to you’re party besides myself?” and it takes me a day or two to recover and respond, please forgive me. You can laugh at my ill-fated attempts at baking, my inability to stay in one key while singing, the fact that I can't do a single pull-up, or my complete incapacity to “get” double entendres all you want. I’ll understand.

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