Language Skills: A Literary Vignette
"I was all like err err," she explained as she stood in the middle of my living room with her arms extended frontwards and her head moving from side to side. She half pantomimed and half verbalized some ordeal that I half paid attention to. "And they were all eeh eeh," she continued her story, bending, bowing, and waving her hands in exaggerated movements. Her image as seen through the sheer-clad windows of my home must have looked like one of those inflatable blowing-tube men you see at used-car lots during blowout sales.
"Wait!" I ordered. "I want to write your story. How do you spell 'err' and 'eeh?'" I asked and reached for a tablet from the bureau next to the couch on which I was sitting.
"I dunno," she said in a tone that informed me of her suspicion of where the conversation was headed. She had visited her old, eccentric, schoolmarmish aunt enough times to know the language-skills sermon was imminent.
"You know . . . ," I started in a pedantic tone so heavy one would strain her back picking it up.
"I know," she said, interrupting me, "I am a native speaker of Standard American English, which is a dialect of British English just as African-American is a dialect of English because all languages are dialects, and all languages are recognized as languages when they have repeating features and identifiable rules—grammar rules!" I was so pleased with her recitation that I had to succumb to silence and a mere smile. "See, Auntie POT Dot, I listen to you."
"Well, why don't you use more words and less pantomime then?" I asked. She shrugged her shoulders and continued her theatrical performance. I studied her. She was a pretty teenager with long light-bronze hair, a slender face, and a long nose. She wore all brand-name clothes and shoes, and I wondered how her mother (my sister) could afford it.
Suddenly—and surprisingly—she rushed up to me and threw gangster signs in front of my face.
"Oh, you!" I exclaimed.
"Well, you're not listening to me!"
"Well, then, speak English and I will!"
"What does it matter!" she whined and threw herself on the couch. I must have seemed like a wretched old nag. Her stay over with me started with a critique of her language skills, and, naturally, nothing could wither my volition in support of this subject.
"How you speak matters very much. People will judge you based on how you present yourself," I lectured.
"That's old school. My generation isn't judgmental and all racist like yours," she retorted.
"Oh, you think so, eh?" I said with a challenging lift in pitch. "I wonder what your generation would say if you wore K-Mart brand tennis shoes instead of those Pierre Hardy's you have on?" I was smug about the advantage of my argument as I watched my niece roll her eyes up, fold her arms over her chest, and look away. She was thinking, and it pleased me to see her mind at work. I saw to it that when around me there would be mental stimulation, although all my haranguing towards this end took its toll. In no way was I the favorite aunt. It is easy to spoil your sister's kids. Everybody wants to be the good guy. People want to be liked. When you spoil children, it is not for them; it's for you. Children need to be guided. They were born yesterday after all! What do they know?
"You know, Auntie POT Dot, all my friends talk like me, so why do I have to be different?" she reasoned, and I admired her for it. I then stood to deliver the rest of my sermon.
"I realize we live in a post-literary society and eloquence is on a rapid decline. It is frustrating to have had developed an immense vocabulary of which only a tiny fraction can be utilized and to be treated with suspicion because of the seeming ostentatious use of a jewel from your treasure chest of words. And what about the lost art of grammar! At least non-native speakers of English—bless their souls—know English grammar far better than native speakers do . . . ."
"It . . . " she tried to interrupt me.
"Shush!" I ordered and felt rude in doing so, but my tirade was like a speeding locomotive pulling tens of cargo wagons full of opinions and points. It would take a while to stop. "A foreigner," I continued, "who learns English as their second language in this country, learns what it means to conjugate a verb, but a born American educated from kindergarten to twelfth grade is more likely to learn what a conjugal visit is than what a conjugated verb is!"
"What's a conjewel visit?" she inquired.
"Shh!" I sounded and hoped I would not have to explain that one. "It seems most native speakers of English in this country lack confidence in speaking and writing formally because they never learned grammar in grammar school! It seems to have been eliminated from the curriculum." I watched the lids of my niece's eyes droop ever so slightly and read it as a prelude to a loss of interest; nonetheless, I continued. "Furthermore," I said, "it is embarrassing when some foreigner—who you can't understand at all because of entrenched phonological rules—can accurately identify the object of a preposition, but the average American college student doesn't even know what a preposition is!"
"I know, auntie, but why do you expect me to speak differently than anyone else? Cuz you really didn't answer my question in the first place."
"I do not expect you to speak differently than others; I expect you to be able to have at your command the most precise, meaningful, and penetrating language to express the depths of your being and to bridge the ever-expanding gap between you and another." The profoundness of this sentiment had her eyes fluttering ever so lightly. I hesitated to go on, but I had more points to make. "And do not believe for one second that you are not being judged in this world. Human beings with whom you come in contact must be estimated. How else can you determine a threat, predict a behavior, recognize a virtue?"
"That's pre-judgment, and they say pre-judgment is prejudice! Auntie, you can't be a racist!"
"One ought not resort to name calling," I advised. "One must always judge and be capable of discerning the dynamics of a situation, and in doing so, one must be well informed, not biased and not bigoted. 'Prejudice' is errant judgment. Now, why is it you have it in your mind that the encouragement of strong language skills is equatable to racism?"
"I dunno." She shrugged her shoulders.
"Could it be you have been errant in your judgment? How you speak and what you say reveals your thinking skills." I watched her fidget, revealing her motivation to escape this conversation. She was probably craving to be with her other aunties, recalling the fun activities they usually engaged in, bowling, miniature golf, watching sitcom reruns late at night. What a difference between them and me. Still I had this endless cargo of linguistic theory to unload on her. Certainly, I could devise an exit strategy for her sake, but my opinions rushed forth, so I rattled on: "Sometimes when a person has a limited vocabulary and yet has certain important feelings to express, such as anger or frustration—which we all do after all—he (or she) may resort to violence as a means to express that rage within, which is why language skills are so important and for that reason alone should be taught to students in elementary school. Now, I surmise that since you threw those gangster signs at me earlier, you have probably seen people suffering from trapped frustration, who lack the words to explain their inner selves, who cannot relieve the pressure of their frustration." I then realized I was probably describing my niece's immediate predicament. "Do students at you school fight? I queried.
I suppose the language skills employed during those scuffles are not of the elevated variety?"
"I dunno." Ah, minimalism was her exit strategy. What was mine? I wondered. A quiet pause endured. Here is an opportunity to change the subject. What should I change it to? I pondered. She then stirred the petite silence with a question.
"So, you think gang members and kids at my school wouldn't beat each other up and stuff if they knew more words?"
"I think it would help us all to have a firm command of the language so we can use it to our advantage, whatever that may be." I walked to the bureau, which held a stash of cash. I pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to my niece and said, "Here, buy yourself a vocabulary." Her face lit up as if I had handed her a million dollars, so I pulled another twenty and handed it to her and asked, "Who's your favorite aunt?"