Sunday, October 27, 2013

Changes That Confuse: Language Isn't Static

Hemlines rise and fall, lapels and ties get wider and skinnier, and pant legs flare or narrow with or without cuffs. People expect to see fashion change every year, and some even save old clothes, knowing that favorite colors and designs will recycle into popular style once again. While humans understand this truth about what they wear, they don’t always see a correlation to how language changes as well.

Still in my mid-twenties and early in my teaching career, I experienced my first lesson about how words and memories dear to me meant nothing to my students. I reenacted a once popular Dr. Pepper commercial to help a class of sixteen-year-olds connect to what I was teaching. I was certain that as soon as they recognized the metaphor in my perfect example they would understand my lesson.

As I stood before them enthusiastically reciting the little ditty that had made me a fool for carbonated prune juice, I saw only blank looks staring back at me. That commercial had never run during their lifetimes. Those dull gazes turned my catchy lines into something awkward like, “I guess you’ve probably never seen that before.”

Their choreographed nodding from left to right confirmed my fear. We had a major disconnect. At a youthful, pre-motherhood twenty-five, I felt ancient standing before individuals who were only nine years younger than I.

Time has not softened the shock of realizing my understanding of the world is a distant planet from my students’ realm. That moment when I think I’m using a relevant example, but I’m not, occurs often enough that I now pause to consider where teens might have heard a phrase before I write a quote on the board.

To warm brains up, I like to jot challenges on the white board at the front of my room—even saying white board instead of chalkboard is one of those new planet concepts. Students now don’t know what chalk boards are—they’ve’ never seen them outside a museum. I’ll post examples similar to 100yds=1 ff or 52 C=1 D, hoping I’ll hear, “Hey, 100 yards equals a football field and there are 52 cards in a deck.”

Increasing the difficulty, I’ll post teasers such as A S L than W, T and T W f N M, or A S in T S 9. Today’s students swiftly answer, “Actions Speak Louder than Words.” After some time, they figure out “Time and Tides wait for no man.” The tide part challenges them, but they’ve heard the rest of that aphorism. The stumper was the one I thought would have been the easiest, “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine.”

Once I told my classes what A S in T S 9 meant, several questioned the meaning of that adage, putting me on the spot. Heavens, neither my students’ nor my generation have mended hand-knit socks to make them last. We buy our socks in packages and toss them in the ragbag when they get a hole. Jeans that folks buy today further confound matters. It seems getting an extra hole is a bonus, not something we race to stitch-up.

Some things about people don’t change. Everyone needs love and acceptance. Everyone needs a meaningful occupation. Everyone needs healthy food and protective shelter. However, fashion and language use do change. What one generation understands can confuse a different generation. 

Just wear your old zoot suit or bell bottoms and explain something to your grandchild  like that's the bees knees or that's groovy, which made sense to you as a kid, depending on your generation.

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