Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What rappers can teach us about language

Have you ever taken the time to think about how complex the English language is and how challenging it is for the young and the non-native speaker? Spoken language is tough enough, but reading and writing English are even more tricky. I can remember 25 years ago teaching teachers about literacy and demonstrating the complexity of literacy by using the example of the word 'run' and some of the many alternative meanings - 37 different meanings in fact! Here are some of these meanings in context for the same letters and sounds:

He went for a run
I had to go into the chicken run
He scored a run [that's how we score in cricket]
She had a run in her stocking
His nose began to run
Could you run up to the shop please?
He had the run(s) [sorry, an Australian colloquialism for diarrhoea]
Run you finger under the word
Can I take the car for a run?
The engine seems to run well.

As I shared in a previous post 'English the inventive language' (here), English is also a language that is constantly changing and expanding. I suggested in the post that word "...'play' is important for children's language and literacy development... (we) ...need to encourage creativity and inventiveness... children (need to be) encouraged to experiment and have fun with language." I love playing with words with children and they love it too - inventing words, rhyming words, using words in ambiguous ways and drawing attention to the ambiguity, using words in a different context to show how meaning can vary, using crazy sounds to make invented words and so on.

We need to immerse our children in a rich environment where language is demonstrated in all its complexity, where new words are shared, and where rhyme, rhythm and word play are encouraged. Rappers may well sing about some dark subjects at times, but the way they play with words and sound can teach us some basic lessons about language. Here is a funny example that will amuse, but will hopefully still make its point.

Australian Christiaan van Vuuren contracted tuberculosis while he was in Argentina late last year. He didn't know he had the disease until he returned to Sydney and was diagnosed and then quarantined in a hospital for 23 days. He shot the video below and posted it on YouTube while he was confined. In his words:
"I aint sick in the sense of being sick,
but sick in the sense of being sick sick"

To Sum up
  • Language is constantly changing
  • English is a very adaptable language
  • Playing with language is a common and desirable thing to do with one's language
  • Language play and inventiveness is good for children's language development, creativity, thinking ability, reading and writing
  • We need to immerse our children in a language environment that is rich in spoken language, writing, reading, poetry, rhyme, music, drama, invention and creativity
Related posts

'English the inventive language' (here)
'Key Themes in Children's Literature: Humour' (here)
'20 Fun Language & Thinking Games for Travellers' (here)


Anonymous said...

to learn a new language, do you think chatting with someone local would be helpful? as internet help us to get connected with people around the work, such as social networking site like Facebook which comes with Instant Messaging Chat feature, would it be helpful to do language exchange through that? but sometimes, it's different to chat without proper translation. What do you think of an instant translation chat feature (almost like caption/subtitles incorporated into IM)? I found a language learning product which does that, www.langlearner.com (or go to this page to see: http://www.langlearner.com/feature_chat.html). what do you think of using language software like Rosetta Stone, and Tell Me More. Any comments are welcome. thx..

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Anonymous,

There is no better way to learn a language than immersion - living amongst language users and communicating with them constantly. I don't know much about the programs/webites that you suggest, but there is a place for structured learning of the type that the sites offer.

Best wishes,