I have never thought of myself as a lover of words because 1) I am not a very good reader; and 2) I really don’t like grammar. OK – I hate grammar. But now that I am once again teaching English to speakers of other languages, I find myself energized and excited by the cacophony of sounds that surround me all day long and the association of those sounds to words. Yes, I do love sounds and I love the process of those sounds transforming into visions, solitary images that move into new images and the words that come to mind as a result. These images deserve description – some descriptions are provided by movement and others by words.
Words! Yes, words come alive when you hear them and produce them in the midst of diverse colors, mixed backgrounds, and the freshness of new understandings. I find myself hearing old words with brand new ears. I search regularly for new ways to express simple concepts.
And I play. I play with words in my head as the sounds I hear in my environment make me aware of nuances that distinguish both similarities and differences among sounds.
English vowels, for example, which I have taken for granted for so long, now rise to the forefront of my consciousness as I teach the pronunciation of cut, cot, cap, and “ket” - as in kettle, but my students hear them all as the same. Ending consonants also have their time in the spotlight with words like buy, bite, and bike – can’t you hear the differences in each of these words? Non-native English speakers generally cannot.
Word association runs rampant as I try to learn students’ names. Elham is the name of a young Saudi woman. She is tall and slender, completely covered but her face is exposed, an angular face with lots of sharp points, soft olive-colored skin and dark eyes. I cannot doubt that she is s direct descendant of Abraham as in the father of the Abrahamic religions.
Abraham? Yes! She also looks like she could be a descendant of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln. There is the “L” and “ham” is the end of Abraham – both Abrahams. Elham. I will never forget her name. Another student, a young man from Thailand with a round face dominated by a big man beard and a persistent smile that shows his teeth is named Wichok: Wee-choke. Wee-choke choke. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Now that’s funny. And hairy. Wichok. I will never forget his name either.
These thoughts are the collaboration of all my knowledge and life experiences colliding with foreign sounds that are strangely not foreign at all. The Arabic sounds are guttural and seem spring forth from somewhere behind the collar bone; Chinese sounds make me feel as if I am wearing a cape made of multimedia wind chimes; the Turkish sounds are rolling like percussion in my blood; the Korean sounds are like Japanese sounds backwards and upside down. All the sounds dance inside me arousing English words that make me want to sing. OK. So I am a lover of words after all!