Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Know your roots!

A Message to my Students, age 12 and above

You will observe, as you grow older, that reading school books and learning for examinations do not help to develop vocabulary after Class 8. That's it -- you have to do this on your own, no teacher can help you.

One of the ways is to understand how the English language grew into the mighty ocean of words and synonyms and antonyms the way it is today, with a total vocabulary of over a million words, and probably even more if we count the technical, chemical, and other terms that professionals use in their work. Why did Hindi not keep pace with it? Why not Tamil or Telugu, and not even French? Recent history answers the question.

Some of the influential speakers of these languages did not wish to have their languages 'polluted', or made 'unclean' with words from other languages. I remember the fanatical enthusiasm with which the Hindi-speakers sought to chase Arabic, Persian, and Urdu words out of the language of the people of India. I remember the virulent speeches rendered by the 'Dravidian' leaders of south India when they spoke of the defilement, desecration, and contamination of Tamil when many common words had evolved from Sanskrit, or were rooted in Sanskrit.

Young people must understand that languages grow naturally through the way people use them, and they evolve into magnificent means of communication with a wide vocabulary when no group, no specific religion, no particular nation claims it as its own. English had this advantage ever since the British Empire spread its tentacles around the globe 200 years ago. And, English grew to fill a vacuum. This language simply absorbed words from other languages throughout its history, accelerated the pace since 1400 A.D., and can now be called the world's most preferred language of communication.

I had been wanting to write on words, their origins, and the interesting stories of how they evolved. Visit my blog at http://wordroots.blogspot.com/ for some words and their roots, which I shall keep posting from time to time. I can neither make this exhaustive nor can I make my posts a school lesson nor college lecture. I do try to make my posts readable, humorous, satirical, or interesting. If you will write your ideas into the comments box, I would have a feedback of your feelings on my blogs and their usefulness.

Get yourself a good dictionary (edition as recent as possible, definitely not over 5 years old), and commence looking it up for every new word that you come across. See your word stock grow - it is a process that will not stop till the end of your days! One of the first chapters in most dictionaries is a brief history of the language. Read it and see for yourself how interesting it all becomes thereafter. I wish you happy times with English words!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Julius Caesar & the Dictionary are fun

When I started our first Vacation batch as I launched The Genius in 1990, I did not dream of presiding over an institution that would take root and reach legendary proportions. No, we haven't grown into a Leviathan - uncontrollable, unwieldy, unwept, unhonoured, unsung - nor into a factory relentlessly producing success stories by the dozen that we can splash in colour ads in newspapers!
We have remained a home for fun for hundreds (nay, thousands!) of young people from age 5 to 17, people who grow up, spread around the world, and occasionally come back to us through their emails, their occasional visits, sometimes with a bouquet on my birthday, and sometimes with an invitation for a wedding where Aunty and I become honoured guests.
Our Summer Programme (tradition holds me back from shortening it to the more rational spelling) started from 1st May 2008, and temperatures soon soared to 43 C. Coolers pumping in air at lowered temperatures didn't really help much!

A month has gone by, and I am retrospecting ...
The students of class 7 to 12 watched a 30-minute clip from the 55-year old film "Julius Caesar" starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, and such other Shakespearean actors. We showed them the assassination scene and the funeral orations thereafter. We chose Brutus' speech - "...not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more!" - for students from class 9 upward to learn up and declaim. The younger ones were given Mark Antony's famous words that end with "Mischief thou art afoot; take thou what course thou wilt!" What a show there was, my readers, whilst all of us felt the words take hold of our hearts and minds and take them to the great historic scene in glorious Rome on the Ides of March, 44 BCE past Shakespeare's Globe, bypassing Plutarch, and all those that dealt with the historic event and the memorable scene.
Anand, Mandvika, and Garima are now planning a fun session with the Dictionary. All the students would bring their dictionaries, and for the first time in their lives, they would look at the symbols that indicate the way a word is pronounced. I do not feel proud when I use the words 'for the first time in their lives' - it is the unfortunate lot of so many of them that most homes and schools do not teach them how to accent the words, how to discover pronunciation for themselves, and also, to read up meanings of the new words that they encounter in the course of their education.
In our session, students would be handling words that are commonly mispronounced - dais, memento, bizarre, chameleon, tortoise. English is not a phonetic language like Hindi is and hence it cannot be picked up, it needs to be learnt. We do not teach the language, but we do show our youngsters how to learn it for themselves.
In the next post, I shall tell you about all that we do with the children of class 6 down to Kindergarten.