Tuesday, 20 September 2016

It's Not Fair - Joan Lennon

My son is teaching English in Indonesia and I've just been to visit.  I was overwhelmed by, well, everything -

But amazingness aside, trying to be helpful with English language lesson plans brought home to me yet again how unfairly easy it is to have grown up speaking the wretched thing.  And I just want to say, to anyone anywhere in the world who is trying to learn English as a second (or third or fourth) language ...


English is an insane language, and it's no help to spread my hands and tell you "You write this rather than something else equally sensible because ... er ... it sounds right."  

It's just not fair.  

Take adjectives.  According to an article in the Guardian this week, there is a rule that, like the writer, I didn't even know existed.  The rule is, when you have multiple adjectives, you always* order them thusly:


And if you jumble that order - a red big jumper, for example, or a Scottish tall teacher - it sounds wrong.**  Have a go yourself, if you've been speaking English from the get-go.  Try and break the rule and see just how uncomfortable it feels.  

And that's just one teeny-tiny cul-de-sac (so to speak) in the shifting maze of English.  So, to all non-English-as-a-first-languagers everywhere, please accept my sincere, ginormous, elderly, well-rounded, rose-tinted, Canadian, iron-clad, unfairness-acknowledging apologies.

* Except when you don't, as the article goes on to explain.  
** Except when it doesn't.  (As in Big Bad Wolf.)  (Sorry.)

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.


Penny Dolan said...

How much I agree about the English lack of language skills, mine included.

I do like this post - and also that article! I didn't "know" that order existed until recently. For me, it's an almost unconscious ordering, and has been hard to explain to children in schools so I have tended to mull, aloud, over the order and ask "which way sounds better?" and ask the class to vote on which sounds best.

I'm wondering if we had better keep quiet about that article otherwise six-year-olds across the land will end up being tested rigorously on the right order of their words, before they can barely say or write them. Oh! The heart sinks, thinking there are probably KS2 grammar exercises on this topic around at this very moment.

Big Bad Wolf? Hmm. I wonder if that's the physical pattern of those words in the mouth, i.e. a small opening for BIG, followed by a larger gape for BAD and closing again for WOLF? (Or BIG suggesting the visual approaching of danger or power and BAD being a closer confirmation of that first impression. As played with in BIG (Aaaagh!)FRIENDLY(Phew!)GIANT (Curiosity? What's going on here with this archetype?)
Oh, Big Bad Bother! Feel I could witter on for ages on this. Must go!

Candy Gourlay said...

The correct ordering of adjectives really is a strange thing, isn't it? How did it evolve? But it just sounds right! Is it even learnable without a lifetime's embedding?

Lynne Benton said...

I've never heard of the order either - but have copied it down for future reference, just in case I ever need it! Thanks for a fascinating blog, Joan, though to echo Penny's misgivings, let's hope it never creeps into the curriculum!

Susan Price said...

An iron English old bridge.

I came across this when I was an RLF and saw a lot of Chinese and Korean students - or, put it another way, I remained ignorant of it well into my 50s and had quite a bit of fun trying to break it.

But surely it's taught as a rule to those studying English as a foreign language, just as we're taught that, most of the time, the adjective follows the noun in French.

Are native speakers of other language often surprised by the rules of their own languages?

Great blog, Joan. So glad that Indonesia was overwhelming - because I'm looking forward to the poems that are going to grow out of it.

Penny Dolan said...

I didn't really mean that the order shouldn't be taught or explained as a feature, especially to second or third language learners. My reaction was to the thought that this "order" might be made into yet another test for KS2 or even KS1 children.

I'm thinking about seeing a piece of marked writing in ten-year-old's English book, which had nouns highlighted in blue, adjectival phrases in yellow and another feature in a third colour. and with comments like "good nouns" and "try to add more adjectives" etc. The child's not very keen on writing - and I'm not surprised.)

Will stop now and go back to look at those pictures of Indonesia - a far better way to fill the mind and minutes. Looking forward to hearing more about your visit soon, Joan.

Sue Purkiss said...

Love the first picture especially!

Nick Green said...

It seems to me that these 'rules' are really only observations after the fact. No-one consciously puts adjectives in that order, it just happened that someone noticed that this is broadly the pattern used. I agree that this information must be burned in the heart of a star to prevent it ever falling into political hands.

Language is like music - best learned by listening and repeating, with only nudges of technique along the way. I learned some superb French as a small child when we had an au pair... I had no idea what an Oh Pear was, but I pronounced it far better than I did at GCSE.

Linda Strachan said...

Great post Joan, English is also a rich and varied language with so many possibilities and delights but so much easier if it is your first language. Great pictures!