Words are Important

Words are important.  Using the right words will blow the reader toward tropical isles; using the right words will launch the listener into the stratosphere. Using the wrong words could get you punched in the face.

Words from home make us comfortable.  The sounds, the phrasing, the accent, the colloquialisms, the rhythm, all of these attributes of our home language we miss when constantly surrounded by words we struggle to understand.

Words are hard to grab onto, at least, the “Right” words can be slippery.  When my German students write in English they often argue over the best words to use.  “Hey guys, what’s the English word for geizig?” The room lights off with a multitude of English words from various desks: cheap, stingy, frugal, miserly, thrifty, tight-fisted.  Then the student will answer back, “Thanks, but none of those words really fit.

Words mean a great deal when you have no words.

“Mrs. Ralf, I want to describe how I feel about this character Nora (A Doll’s House) but I have no words.”

     “Well, on a sheet of scratch paper just list all the things, actions, phrases that describe that feeling.” I say naively.

     “No, you don’t understand.  I really don’t have the words.”

I was stumped as to how to help this student.  As I pondered his problem in English, he started harassing a friend in Portuguese over his shoulder, and then yelled across the room in Mandarin to get another boy’s attention.  Living without a word to express what you are thinking is hard to imagine, unless you are a student with no mother tongue.  I was shocked the first time I encountered this. School has to be an incredibly frustrating place when you have no words to match up with other words you know.  You have no frame of reference.  All you have is this feeling inside of you that you cannot express with any word, in any of the languages you know.

The more I teach my bilingual students, the more I treasure their words.  I know that they crafted their sentences.   They didn’t just spill stuff out of their brains onto the page.  They had to THINK about the words.  Every time a child asks, “What’s the English word for…” you know they think words are important too.

Today I had my own experience with words.  I was trying to express to a doctor who barely spoke English how my chest felt.  “Ich habt…pressure…was ist pressure in Deutsch?”  I did a hand motion to try to help her understand.  Then she exclaimed “Oh ach so!  Druck!”  She sang as she typed, “under preshah, veighin’ down on mich…”  Relieved, that she understood, I answered back, “Genau.”

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1 reply

  1. It is so hard to just not have the words. I’ve experienced this so many times and it has completely changed my perspective on language. I became a big believer in the importance of mother-tongue instruction after moving to different countries without speaking the language first. Students need to have some way, in some language, to express their ideas, or the ideas themselves get lost.

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