English Vinglish

 In a recent turn of events, I traded an over-cluttered life in Bombay for a school on a hill to teach English to grade seven and eight students. I was as untrained as they come, but I knew one thing. I had always been thrilled about words coming alive on paper. I figured teaching would involve spreading a bit of that disease.

On day one, in an attempt to “know my audience”, I asked the students to share their favourite word and say why they liked it. They quickly came up with words like music, joy, peace, love, happy and others. My heart sank. It felt frugal. This is not going to be fun, I thought. Was this what they meant by the economy of language, I wondered.

Then I told them I was making word soup and needed something chunkier – words with more gravitas, more texture, more back-stories. I sent them off shopping for words and asked them to come back the next day with words that would make for a hearty word soup.

The results were delectable. On day two, we had words like askew, malevolent, punctilious, extol, prevaricate, misanthrope, apoplectic, inexorable, formidable, recalcitrant and more. My initial fears of dealing with an auto-correct, tweet-ready generation were soon dispelled.

On day five, they were using formidable in a sentence. A month later, they are itching to use inexorable.

A recent Wall Street journal article blames technology largely for the fade out of big words. The article points out that we are being conditioned to communicate faster and in shorter bursts. There isn’t room for big words in a text or a tweet or even a quickly dashed-off email. We’re communicating across so many different channels that, by sheer necessity, our language is becoming abbreviated.

I wonder if this frugality with words makes us frugal in other places too. In our senses, our feelings, the way we live and love. Words are to make friends with. When we have enough words, we have company. Words are a way of making a little seem like a lot. If we always take the easy way out, big words will never find the love they deserve. As long as we shield ourselves from big words, we will never make the next move on them. All they need is a little bit of demystifying and they are reduced to their smaller, less intimidating forms, the familiar, the known.

Parenting is a big word too. I still don’t know what it means. But when you get it right, it’s like using a nice word in a sentence. You can go into tricky areas, follow your heart, take the road less travelled. Or you can play safe, live by the book and do what everyone does and no one will really know the difference. Except you.

My dad used to constantly quiz me on spellings when I was little. The words had nothing to do with what I was learning in school, but it was always a thrill when I got them right. “Spell exorbitant,” he would say. Or entrepreneur. Itinerary. Years after I chose writing as a career, he continued to throw word challenges at me. He still does.

My son Re, who just turned five, has graduated from his hippopotis-rhinopotis days to use words like emergency, disaster, soggy, ridiculous, permission, impossible and incorrigible with nonchalance. I miss his babble and the growing up bit hurt a little, but I love the fact that soon, I will be able to share chunkier, more delicious words with him.

Last week, we returned home to find that our cat Bravo had yet again wandered off into the wilderness while we were at school. Re knows his hideouts, and I asked him to look for Bravo.

Bravo is your responsibility. You have to ensure he is safe all the time,” I said.

Whatity mamma?”

I mean job,” I replied, quickly realising that it was a mouthful.

No, what did you say?” I could sense he was hungry for the word.


Oh. REPONSIBITY!” he said, tasting, savoring a new word.

I know he’ll get there sooner than I imagine. We are just richer by another word. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 21st July 2014)


48 thoughts on “English Vinglish

  1. What a fantastic article Lali… i am sure this will encourage all other parents to introduce their kids to more words and not just restrict to contemporary words !

  2. For the longest time (until yesterday, that is), I believed that the simpler the words, the better it is. I also apply this to my writing. Acoording to me, sucess lies in communicating the thought effectively and not complicate it with tough words that most people might not be able to follow. In fact, my daughter, who’s just turned six, sometimes surprizes me with her vocabulary, thanks to all the Enid Blytons she reads. She has, over last one year, developer a richer vocabulary than mine — all because she chooses to use the new words she learns.
    Your piece just puts this in perspective. We need to give words a chance!

  3. Loved everything about this piece. 🙂 How to savor words and make a soup out of them! – a new thought esp for generation like us who are always in a hurry to finish a thought, to finish a sentence.

    Next time, I will slow a little and will try to learn a new word everyday from now on.


  4. This is so true. I recently caught myself writing abt in place of about in a assignment. I think it’s time I paid more attention to what write in my texts and tweets. Thanks you for the post!

  5. “I wonder if this frugality with words makes us frugal in other places too.”

    I think it’s more than just frugality. It’s like an abbreviation of thought that over time contributes to abbreviated thinking.

  6. Reblogged this on The Grandmother Club and commented:
    Words are fascinating creatures. They can brighten a day and enlighten a heart. Throw those big words around like a toy ball and see them bounce right back to you. That, fellow grandmothers, is a job well within our responsibility.

  7. You make a really good point about our frugality with words translating into our hectic everyday lives, particularly when today everything we do seems to adhere to a schedule.
    Really great post though, I loved the bit about the word soup! 😀

  8. I’d disagree with the Wall Street Journal’s article. I don’t believe it’s technology. I just think our children need educating more in widening their vocabulary to use “bigger” words. And naturally, words phase out over the years anyway. You are doing a great job in teaching your students and child to use those big words. I hope to do the same some day when/if I have a child. 🙂

  9. You take an unconventional view here, most writers subscribe to the less is more strategy, the “never use a long word where a short word will do” rule of Orwell’s. I generally do as well, but you make some good points here. I read the few chapters of Jane Eyre the other day, too, and it gave me the impression we’ve lost some very important ground in the battle for a precise and effective English vocabulary. It depends on the reader though, you don’t want to alienate less literary people.

  10. Splendiferous. 😉

    I still remember my ex-husband telling me he was made fun of on the playground as a child because he used a phrase he had heard in a book, “many’s the time…” This was far before tweet and auto-correct. I thought it so sad, and still do, as much for the children who were not read to and had no sense of the magic of that phrase as for the boy my husband was. Even with the chance of being mocked. I would far rather my children have the richness of language at their disposal. Of chunky words, and literary phrases.

    Having taught English composition, I’ve also had to deal with the prose of young writers clobbering me with their Roget’s Thesaurus to sound “literary,” but that is just an excess of enthusiasm. Far better to go through that to sparseness when sparseness is desired, than around it like a highway bypass. Not everyone wants to sound like Hemingway – who at least one critic called the “monosyllabic moron” – or should.

  11. Fabulous. I like the way your passion for the language is percolating to your son and the way he is famished for words… 🙂

  12. Pingback: Next time you push your children, push yourself a little bit too | mommygolightly

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