Reading, Writing and Speaking: Do We Still Know How?

I am fascinated by words and their daily use. From the time I was a kid, my mother was always correcting my use of English, which meant that the use of slang never sat well with her. When we first came to Australia, it was only natural that I would start to absorb how Aussies speak and not just the accents. For example, it was not uncommon to hear people say: “Can I have a lend of that?” to which my (horrified) mother would respond with “The correct way to ask that is ‘Can I borrow that?'”. Another favourite was: “Have a look at them things!” Tsk tsk.

One of my several majors in high school was English. It really was no surprise given my love of storytelling and having words drilled into me from a young age. I never quite “got” poetry, despite my love for Dead Poets Society. I also found it difficult to appreciate many of the prize-winning literature we studied, though I suspect that had as much to do with the fact that I lacked the understanding of the historical background upon which those plays and novels were based: think British playwrights and authors such as Terence Rattigan, John le Carre and George Moore’s Esther Waters, American classics like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Australian classics like Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.

It would undoubtedly please my mother to know that, over the years, her insistence on the correct use of grammar, spelling and punctuation, have rubbed off on me. Of course, I am no English professor and I am just as guilty as the next person of making mistakes and taking shortcuts, but I always feel like I have been naughty when I stray. What irks me most is seeing mistakes in books (was the editor asleep?) or on public signs. Here are a couple of examples I spotted on a recent trip to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. See if you can find the mistakes:

Photo 6-06-2014 10 31 22 pm Photo 6-06-2014 10 31 10 pm


Our laziness with language takes on different forms. Not only are we shortening words when we send text messages and tweets, but with the increasing use of technology also comes the decline of writing by hand. I will be the first to admit my handwriting has always been deplorable, but seeing my 12 year-old nephew’s handwriting makes me wonder if children these days even know how to write. I learnt cursive writing in third or fourth grade but I believe this is no longer taught in the classroom.  In fact, I recently read an article on listing out reasons why kids should still learn cursive writing. Maybe if someone pointed out to this generation of fame-obsessed kids that they should learn cursive writing so when someone asks for their autographs they could do more than a mere scribble, it might provide some motivation?

Languages – written and spoken – evolve and eventually, like so other life-forms, die. Latin is barely taught anymore, though is still sometimes used in church services; Hieroglyphs continue to baffle the treasure-hunters; Shakespearean (Elizabethan) English continue to entrance me; sadly, even the Chinese language, which has always been very different when spoken compared to written, has evolved to the extent that you might as well consider it as near-dead. The differences between “Traditional Chinese” and “Simplified Chinese” are vast. For someone like me who has not studied Chinese in thirty years, looking at Simplified Chinese is as foreign as the Greek alphabet – it’s vaguely familiar but not really recognisable.

As I get older, I become increasingly aware of the changes around me of the everyday life. More and more frequently, I am aware I have become “one of those” women who reminisce about “when I was a kid…” and complain about “kids these days…”. Whilst I bemoan the fact that all around me I see parents keeping their children (of all ages) entertained with iPads instead of a colouring-in book or dolls or trucks, I also acknowledge that technology is the way of the future. It always has been, and always will be. I just hope the art of reading and writing and creativity will continue to live on for many generations to come.



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