“Errors” are the Best!

20 Sep

My Nonna, my mother’s mother, had to learn English twice, due to moving back and forth between the States and Italy when she was little. At one point, she got sent home from school daily for not speaking English, and every day after her mother returned her to school anyway, arguing with the nuns who ran the school that she was never going to learn if they kept sending her home!

Perhaps because of this, or perhaps just due to her love of language and expression, my Nonna went on to learn perfect English. She kept her Italian as well and added fluent Spanish later in life, both of which she taught me bits of at different points in my life. But more than the Italian phrases she taught me I remember the ways she would give you a hard time to correct your English grammar errors- things my mom repeated to us, too.

Like if you said “I’m done with my homework” instead of “finished,” she’d say, “You’re done? Dinner gets done! Can I stick a fork in you?”

Or if you asked, “Where is it at?” she’d say, “Behind the at,” because “Where is it?” needs no “at” afterward. Nobody even knows or follows half of these rules that she enforced, but by golly, I learned them, thanks to her and my mom. So I come by it honestly- my need to know the correct way.

But language is an art, not a perfect science, and I love it for that, too. I’m also an English teacher, and I certainly don’t teach perfect English to my students. I teach my students correct English as I know it, sure, but I don’t expect them to get it perfectly all the time (or ever), and I actively encourage them to make mistakes. I want them to try to communicate, to use the language to express themselves, not to sit around worrying about whether have or has goes with the subject the students. Of course I want them to learn the correct thing, but I teach them that it’s better to say, “The students has too much homework” than to say nothing at all.

Despite my encouraging, mistake-loving attitude for language learners, I was still sitting around with another foreign teacher bemoaning the spelling situation here in Mexico. While I don’t expect anyone to spell well in English, I’ve discovered that many Spanish speakers can’t spell well in Spanish. And Spanish, unlike English, is phonetic. The vowels only make one sound. There aren’t 3 ways to pronounce the same consonant-vowel combo. The spelling actually makes sense.

“So, why, oh, why,” I whined, “can whatever teacher who posted that notice on the kindergarten down the street not spell the word please (por favor) correctly?” Why is it that some of my students didn’t write haber correctly on an activity, even when they just had to copy it? How could you so drastically change the word hacer to aser or voy to boi?

If you know Spanish at all, though, you know that these are mistakes because Spanish is phonetic. The h is never pronounced. The v sounds exactly like the b. The s, z, and often c are more or less interchangeable phonetically. So what difference does it make? Boi, if you read it aloud to yourself, sounds exactly the same as the correct word for ‘I go’.

Sort of like it doesn’t really make a difference that people here always use “quotation marks” incorrectly (like I did just now). Like when they write se vende “chorizo”  (“sausage” for sale). Because everyone consistently uses quotation marks to highlight or underline a word (especially in names of stores, too), I am pretty much the only one walking around giggling about their apparently not-real chorizo. So, you know, I guess if everyone’s agreed about the meaning, then it really doesn’t matter whether it’s officially correct or not.

As for my semi-rhetorical “why” in the matter of “why can’t everyone spell this right?” I could speculate on the situation. For one, many people speak Spanish as a second language anyway (speaking another indigenous language as well). Also, I think spelling is not a priority for much of anyone. A lot of people are too busy getting by to have time to give a damn about reading and spelling. I suspect that a lot of spelling correctly is due to seeing the word written correctly time after time. At least for me that’s the case. I’d never make it in a spelling bee because with many words I have to write it down and look at it like I’m reading it to know if it’s correct or not. So reading all the time is one way that many of us learn to spell.

But here, there are a ton of barriers to reading for pleasure. (Dear Cheyenne, I found an appropriate place to talk about books and libraries, finally!) First off, the cost of books is outrageous! Here in my small town, there’s not even a bookstore. Sometimes there are book fairs, where somebody sets up a stand to sell books. But a new book sells for 200 or 300 pesos (about 12-18 US dollars, which is more than lots of people make in two days!) Even used books are much more expensive than you’d find them in the US. And there are libraries, but the couple I’ve been in don’t have much selection and don’t have great lending policies. In one of them you had to leave your ID to borrow a book, which is problematic if you need your ID for anything. In another, they give you a library card, but you only get the book for a week. I’m spoiled rotten by my Louisville library system, where you get a book for 3 weeks and can renew on-line or over the phone.

Even people who do read for pleasure and grew up in the library (like Conan) still frequently change around bs and vs and the like, so I think it just brings me back to the idea that nobody cares about it but me. And why do I care? Despite my training in youth and my personal adoration of grammar as a fun pasttime, I don’t speak or write perfectly in English or Spanish. Furthermore, thanks to international travel, I’m well aware of the plethora of differences in countries and even regions that people are always declaring as rights and wrongs, when really they’re just differences in use. They’re differences that actually make language more fun, more interesting- what makes it alive, and changing all the time. If I can accept that hueá means huevada in Chile, or that vos sos in Paraguay is just as legit as tú eres, that half six in Ireland can actually refer to the time 6:30, then why does it bug me if grasias is spelled with two s?

Yet part of me still cringes when I see it. Part of me wants to cry out that NO! It’s wrong, wrong I tell you! I suspect that this part of me that unconsciously buys into those mean old nuns who sent my Nonna home from school. This is the part of me that needs to know the correct answer so that people don’t treat me like I’m ignorant. But really, not spelling correctly is not what makes people ignorant, and incorrect spelling doesn’t speak at all about people’s character. It’s way more legitimate to write por fabor any which way you please (yay for having manners!) than to treat people poorly based on their usage of language. The real reason I love language is because it is, after all, a tool to be used for expression, not a set of rules to further oppression. So stop me the next time I palm-smack myself over some inconsequential error, and remind me what I tell my students: “Errors are the best!” Let’s all keep learning, folks!

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