Friday, 4 February 2011


Working with students on a one-to-one basis has offered a fascinating insight into how different people perceive different points of language.

It has also revealed what I feel to be a rather worrying link between how children hear things, interpret them, and then write them down. I'm not talking about the occasional misunderstanding here, because we are all guilty of that sometimes, but actually being unable to listen to the sounds of speech and translate them into written patterns.

Now, I know English is a funny old language, with many foibles and inconsistencies. That's what makes it such a rich and vibrant tool of the arts. And I know that a lot of spelling patterns have to be learnt by rote, because they do not correspond with the sounds the voice make when it speaks the word. But simple words that sound as they are written i.e phonic, should really cause no problems at all.

Some issues surround the way we say words. Here in Kent we are commonly guilty of saying, 'Could of,' rather than 'could have.' So children tend to write 'of ' instead of 'have' because that is what it sounds like we say. It's lazy, but correctable for the purposes of proper Inglish Gramma, innit?

But sometimes a student will misspell a word, and I'll say, 'Does that spell like it sounds?' and they say 'Yes,' and I'll say, 'Listen to me saying the word,' and I'll say the word slowly and clearly, and they'll still not get it.

Like today. The word was 'human.' I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, well, easy mistake. They might think it's pronounced 'humman' as in buzzy bee hum.

No. Matthew's attempt was 'fuman.'
'Human,' I said.
'Fuman,' said Matthew.
',' I said.
',' said Matthew.
',' I tried, slowly and careful, looking at this point like some deranged chimpanzee.
',' said Matthew, trying not to laugh.
'Human,' I said quickly, trying to catch him off-guard.

At this point, Matthew laughed. 'I can't say it,' he said.
'Can you hear that it starts with a 'h' sound and not a 'f' sound?' I said.
'Yes,' he said. 'Fuman.'
'Huckin' fell,' I thought.

I don't know exactly what it is, but I have, as I suspect you can guess, got my theories.

1) Have you heard children's TV these days? Have you seen Rasta Mice? I rest my case.

2) i-pods, personal sound systems, whatever else it is that youngsters plug into their ears FOR 12 hours a day and play at a level that is audible across all lanes of the M25 during rush hour.

3) The inability to converse with each other without SHOUTING at the TOPS OF THEIR VOICES, because they live in a society where the most important person is ME and I'm GOING TO MAKE MYSELF HEARD, even though I have nothing of value to say, I just WANNA BE LOUD AND FAMOUS!

4) The inability to take turns when speaking, ditto number 3; when I was classroom teaching I reckon every day I must have said at some point, 'I have only one pair of ears and one brain. Please do not shout at me all at once.' It's quite fascinating listening to a group of five or six girls all talking with their own agenda in mind so you hear six different topics all at once, and none of them are listening to anyone else. They aren't having a conversation, they are competing for air time. No wonder it ends in punch ups and misunderstandings sometimes.

5) The fact we are constantly surrounded by sound; traffic, music, muzak, chatter, tv, radio, internet, gossip, I grow older, I grow more intolerant of sound. This week we've barely had the tv on, and the evenings have been punctuated with no sound louder than the turning of a page, the scratching of a pen, and the occasional, 'Cup of tea, hot pants?'

So this weekend, take time to listen to the sound of nothing. To the sound of your brain ticking, your imagination working, your body breathing. I know I'm going to.

It's one of the best ways, after all, to feel fuman.

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