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.

RESPONSIBILITY.”

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)

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