Tag Archives: learning

Dead Language Breathes Life into Modern English

By Jason Menard

I think it was Elvis who said it best when he sang, “it’s only words and words are all I have to steal your heart away.” And speaking from personal experience, if my words are any more eloquent, it is directly the result of the Latin training I received at South Secondary School.

Wednesday’s edition of The London Free Press profiled the retirement of Neil Tenney, the Latin teacher at that educational institution. And it also highlighted the fact that this program is the last of its kind in both the Thames Valley District and London Catholic School Boards – and that’s a shame.

Currently I make my living with words. Corporate communications expert by day, freelance columnist, sports writer, and radio fill-in by night, it has been through my abilities with the English language that I’m able to put food on my family’s table. And for that I have to thank my Latin teacher Jean Mayhew – formerly of South Secondary School.

You see, I didn’t learn English in English class. Far from it. I actually learned my English grammar during my time in Latin and French classes at South and, later, Western. It was there I learned about verb tenses, conjugation, and – most importantly – flow.

So while we’d be chuckling through the Cambridge Latin course reading silly stories about thepater Caecillius and his family, we were actually building a foundation upon which our appreciation of language grew. But without that foundation in the future, where will people learn?

I grew up in a time of English courses focusing on reading comprehension. It didn’t matter if you could spell your words or construct a coherent though as long as the general idea was expressed. And that continues, in large part, to this day. My wife and I fight a daily battle with our 12-year-old son about the importance of developing proper language skills, when his argument – justified by solid grades – is that “you get the point.”

I’m not a stickler for grammar. Few people annoy me more than those who absolutely refuse to dangle their participles or split their infinitives. Grammar is fluid and what sounds right is often less jarring and more effective than what the prescriptive grammarians would condone from their ivory linguistic towers. I’ve got no problems with people using “they” in the singular if it sounds better. After all, grammar is designed to let words flow and to allow concepts to be expressed – not to rigidly force everyone to conform to one ideal that may no longer apply.

Life goes on. Things change and we’re inundated with new cultural, technological, and linguistic influences each and every day. If we remain dogmatically chained to our linguistic past, we’ll be ill-prepared to deal with the challenges of the future.

However, one should have a solid foundation upon which the future can be built. Language – and one’s understanding of it – enables people to experience a world of influences that may be limited by lack of comprehension. For me, Latin and French gave me the structure and knowledge that was lacking from my English training, wherein my teachers were more concerned about me understanding what was said than how it was said.

If I can boast any way with words, it’s because of that Latin and French training. Before I became immersed in those language studies, I was the product of my teaching. I understood concepts and could generally express them – but it was far from precise and it was far from proper.

Words are one of the best ways we have to convey feelings, emotions, and experiences. It is one thing to string together a few words to get an idea out there – it’s something much different to use language to allow the reader to experience the idea through the lyric effect of words. And let’s not even start how Latin has aided in my rudimentary understanding of languages like Spanish and Portuguese.

We live in a world where instant messaging and social interactive media has turned conversation into a competitive race. It’s not about saying something properly, it’s about saying it in as few characters as possible. Yet, eventually, those IMers will have to converse with a real person. They’ll have to hand in an assignment – not to mention a resumé — that isn’t peppered with emoticons or LOL’s. The question is where will they find the skills to do so?

I was lucky. I had Ms. Mayhew’s Latin class to steer me on the right course. Little did I know that weekly bingos, annual banquets, and light-hearted learning would have such an impact on my life. But it has, and I’m a better writer — and a better man – for it. Hopefully generations of students at South will continue to have the option to take this class, because its value is immeasurable.

It’s just too bad that no other students in the region will be able to start a day with Ms. Mayhew’s, or any other Latin teacher’s, terrible Latin jokes like semper ubi sub ubi – or always [where] under [where]. It may have been a terrible pun, but it was a fantastic foundation for the future.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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Lessons Learned

By Jason Menard

You know what’s the best thing about university? It’s the opportunity to learn and explore exciting new worlds and experiences. And what’s the worst? The fact that everyone around you thinks they’re right and has all the answers.

Despite the cacophony of people all-too-ready to pounce on them, Ian Van Den Hurk, the editor-in-chief of The Gazette, and his staff have learned the greatest lesson of all from their spoof edition – the lesson that people make mistakes and it’s OK.

Now, if only others would be as tolerant and forgiving as they expect The Gazette staff to be. But when it comes to savaging the wounded, it seems that whatever slings and arrows that are nearby are fair game – even if they’re not based in truth.

I know, I’ve been there. Ten years ago, I sat in Van Den Hurk’s chair as editor in chief of the daily student newspaper of the University of Western Ontario . I had the honour of working with a dedicated, passionate group of people who were committed to excellence. Most importantly, they were committed to sacrificing their lives for the cause of serving the student body at large. We were a diverse group of men and women, working together knowing that we were fighting against various interest groups that only had one agenda to push – their own.

In a university environment, you’re immersed in a world of passionate people, who are learning new things and gaining new experiences every day. They are exposed to new causes and embrace them with the passion and vigour of youth – unfortunately, that’s not always tempered with experience and knowledge, and that enthusiasm without wisdom can be the fuel that fans the flames of anger. Passion often overwhelms perspective when dealing with various interest groups.

One of the arrows recently lobbed at Van Den Hurk and his staff is that The Gazette has long been a bastion for sexist comment, which is ludicrous. Over my four-year time at The Gazette I had the distinct pleasure of working for and with an unparalleled group of women, many of whom have gone on to positions of influence in the media and business world. They brought a passion and dedication to the publication of the news, but also were able to shape and refine our perspective. These were some of the strongest women I’ve met and they are the type of people of whom I would proud to have as role models for my daughter and my son!

In my exit column, I wrote how much I valued the contribution that everyone made at the paper and stated that the ignorant critics would always remain so. That opinion still holds because it’s not that people don’t want to understand – it’s that they choose not to.

Looking back on my days as EIC, I was vilified for choosing to run a Cultural Diversity issue in February. The decision was motivated by our desire to be more inclusive with the various groups around the campus, but due to financial and advertising restrictions, the only month we could afford to do this edition was February – the time of our Black History Month issue. We were vilified as racists, despite running a month’s worth of articles focusing on black history, because we chose to forgo a dedicated issue in lieu of embracing all cultures. Despite the positive feedback we got from the campus at large, a select few groups chose to focus solely on their own interests – to the point where we were told the African-Canadian co-ordinator of the month’s worth of coverage wasn’t “black enough.”

From that experience and others during that year, I learned a valuable lesson about respect and tolerance. I learned that in a position of influence you have to be even more sensitive to cultures than you think you are – but, in the end, you have to do what you feel is right.

But the key point is that I learned – and isn’t that what higher education’s about? Don’t forget that Van Den Hurk and the rest of his staff are students, juggling a passion for journalism with educational, familial, and social commitments. Many have to hold down second jobs because the pay they receive is a pittance – but they do it for the love of the craft. They’re passionate, dedicated people who only want to do the best, but sometimes make a mistake. And now, in rectifying that mistake, they have the opportunity to grow as writers, as editors, and — most importantly — as people.

In retrospect, the article lampooning Take Back the Night and women’s issues should have been vetted a little more closely. It should have been handled with the utmost in delicacy understanding the passions that the issue can inflame. But the topic is not taboo – no cow is too sacred for satire. How one puts that satire into effect is the key, and it’s a lesson that the staff of The Gazette are certain to have learned.

In this rush for everyone to mount their moral high horses, common sense is getting trampled underfoot. If there was truly no malice – and I can’t fathom, knowing the caliber of women that join the ranks of The Gazette, that there would be – and the staff is genuinely remorseful for the impact of their work, then we should afford them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. For those who are preaching tolerance from their respective pulpits, perhaps it’s time for them to lead by example.

In the end, the writers at The Gazette will be better, more well-rounded people for going through this experience – and isn’t that what higher education is about?

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

English Doesn’t Excuse Ignorance

By Jason Menard

After participating in a global conference call, I have come to the conclusion that I am an ignoramus. The problem is that I can only say that in two languages. While I’m not alone in this situation, we, as a society, continue to revel in our ignorance instead of embracing a chance to improve our stature.

I had the pleasure of participating in a conference call with colleagues around the world, from Russia to Venezuela and all points in between. And guess what language it was in? That’s right – English.

As I sat through the meeting, chatting convivially with my cohorts in my mother tongue, it slowly dawned upon me that they were conversing with a dexterity and alacrity of which I could only dream. They were laughing, joking, and speaking in confident tones, navigating the English language – occasionally in a more cumbersome manner than normal, but still in a way that puts us to shame.

As I listened to these people who speak two, three, even more languages with confidence, I began to feel shame. While I’m fluent in French, and I can also understand a fair bit of Spanish and Portuguese, I felt shame about the way that we look at language in this country.

Whereas other countries look at multilingualism as a normal part of their everyday life, many of us continue to look at bilingualism as an imposition. Instead of embracing the opportunity that learning a new language offers us, we close our minds and assume that, simply because we don’t encounter a language in our day-to-day lives, we don’t need to learn it.

We couldn’t be more wrong. While we may not utter the phrase “Speak White,” we live it by our insistence that the world must come to us, instead of us meeting the world half-way. And in any language, actions speak louder than words.

This insular attitude persists, even in the reaction to our school curriculum. Reading through the literature that my son brought home with him from his first day of school, there was a note explaining why French was being taught in the schools. The fact that some need an explanation as to why one of Canada’s two official languages is being taught to Canadian students should be an embarrassment.

Already our children don’t receive enough language training. The level of language education is inadequate and leaves our students unprepared when confronted with an actual French speaker. In high school, graduation requires only two credits in French. And yet still people feel this is to onerous.

Yes, but there may be those of you who will never travel outside of English-speaking countries. So why should you learn French? Simple. It helps your English.

I like to consider myself the perfect test case. All though my elementary school and into high school, English grammar was an afterthought. With the focus on reading comprehension and displaying the ability to express your understanding of the reading, not enough focus was placed on the basics of language construction. We could understand the paragraph, but were unable to craft a sentence.

My English was passable, but certainly not eloquent in my youth. I could express myself well verbally and was able to string a sentence together. But I wasn’t cogniscent of the how’s and why’s of language. That came later on in my life, when I started taking Latin and French at higher levels.

There I learned how a sentence is constructed. There I learned the basic grammar rules that allow language to escape its pedestrian roots and literally fly off the pages. It was through learning about various clauses, tenses, and agreements in French and Latin that I was able to apply that knowledge to my English speaking and writing, and understand the correlation.

Forget the fact that languages allow us to understand each other better. Forget the fact that an appreciation for someone’s mother tongue enables us to bridge cultural and physical gaps. The greatest gift that learning another language has to offer is the ability to improve the way we speak our own.

This world is shrinking. Even during my not-so-lengthy stay on this planet to date, I’ve seen a marked shift in the diversification of Canadian society. While our canvas was fairly monochrome in the past, now the image is increasingly being enriched by a multitude of different colours, swirling together to create a cultural mosaic that’s striking in its beauty. The Internet has rendered the farthest corners of the world just a click away. And yet we continue to resist embracing diversity in language.

The world is literally at our doorstep. The question is, why do we continue to bar the door? And why are we afraid of opening it to a world of new experiences and self-improvement?

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved