Reading versus Non-Reading
The other day my daughter and I were consulting together on the lack of vocabulary possessed by my youngest granddaughter, who is not a reader. When talking to me she frequently looks blank and asks her mother to interpret.
Yes, maybe I do sometimes complex words liberally peppered with proverbs with which no teenager today is familiar with – but I love them, don’t you? They are so apposite – especialy things like ‘it’s an ill wind’ and ‘don’t cross your bridges’ – and they save aeons of explanation. Like learning languages – if you sow well, life becomes quite simple. But making a visit to Spain with a knowledge of five words, plus please and thankyou and where is the railway station, and my goodness, you will be up against a brick wall!
Of course you could always pretend to be American and subscribe to that ancient quip, ‘Americans dont learn languages, they just speak louder!’
Apropos of my granddaughter’s blank face on hearing proverbs I tried out one at the supermarket which was exceedingly appropriate. Doing my bit for the planet by refusing to buy a plastic bag, I was attempting to place 7 pieces of grocery into a bag that fitted only 4. So I quoted, ‘It’s like trying to put a quart into a pint pot.’ And, yes, the young guy at the till did look completely blank but of course politely so!
As a consequence of not reading books, my granddaughter is now finding English classes difficult, and written exams impossible as she frequently fails to grasp the nub of the question. And, yes, no doubt she is dreading the forthcoming GCSE exams.
(As for a career, she might well become a politician; they always fail to understand questions asked of them, restating their point of view in a roundabout way as if it is a ‘cure-all.’
My grandson happened to be another non-reader, both he and his sister obsessed with tehnology, and he particularly to computer games. (He was operating a mobile phone at two.) Fortunately, several years ago now, when asked to choose a book from the school library, he spotted an old copy of A Fishy Tail. He snatched it up, calling out, ‘My grandmother wrote this,’ and took it back to class to read.
‘Yes, I know, it’s fantastic, but he didn’t know that. It was the one-upmanship of having an author grandmother that he liked – it definitely enhanced his street cred. Now he reads under the covers by torchlight … every night. Loved the first two Jack Burnsides, not so keen on the third, and has read all the Harry Potters. I bought him Diary of a Wimpy Kid for Christmas and continues from strength to strength.
On the other side of my argument, this weekend my eldest granddaughter (who loves Shakespeare) was talking about a ‘book’ that ‘literally saved her life’, telling me I should read it. What did I expect? Certainly not what I got. Published on a fan-fiction site, devotees upload their stories as they write them, snippets, chapters, punctuation and spelling mistakes galore. Readers pick them up and follow, eagerly awaiting the next chapter. The ‘book’ I was given to read had 336,000 hits and yet it was as far from being a readable book as it was possible to be.
To begin with, I thought it a play. Except it wasn’t. The only way I can describe it is: an ungrammatical series of jottings, in which expletives ruled the roost, with absurd situations created just for titillation.
For me, fan fiction sites (and there is a huge number) expose a worrying trend in popularism – is there such a word – with authors appealing to the lowest common denominator. It is also a terrible indictment of our education system. At least forty years ago, people could write a fair hand with words spelled correctly and in the right place.
I can hear the outcry now. Does it matter? Surely you should be delighted that someone is actually taking the time to write?
Yes, I should and that is my dilemma. As I said in my opening sentence, part of me shouts, No while an equal part shouts, Yes, it does matter.
The English language is one of the richest anywhere, so why are we restricting our vocabulary to 200 words, half of which comprise 4 letters and are banned by the BBC before the 9pm watershed?
I confess to finding profanity belligerent, aggressive and in most cases, both boring and unnecessary. (My grandfather used confound it and the word bluebell as an adjective … that bluebell of a postman. I neither find expletives funny (as comedians on the television believe) nor clever (as writers on television series seem to think) nor an example to our young. I read on-line that J K Rowling and Piers Morgan swapped expletives. (It may well not have been true – fake news is yet another worrying problem.
Indeed, expletives are so widely used that no one notices or comments any more, using one particular word as noun, adjective, and adverb. (Indeed, if I asked for a different adjective would they be able to provide one?)
My problem with this … if you hear something often enough, you begin to accept it as normal. Once it becomes ‘normal’ you then look for new ways to push the boundaries of ‘acceptable behaviour’ even further.
Today I watched a rerun of an interview with JB Gill of JLs because the 2020 Chelsea Flower Show is cancelled. He loves flowers and is a farmer. Remembering the awkwardness of members of that group when they first came onto the screen, all I can say is Wow! He has broadened in every way, presentation, use of vocabulary, language. He was so entertaining and came over absolutely brilliantly. And not a bad word in sight.
Have I solved my dilemma. Not really, when visiting schools I used to say, ‘it doesn’t matter what you read, fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, comics, instructions, even the back of the cereal package, provided you can read. Now, I afraid I do add, ‘provided you learn the occasional new word and the grammar and spelling are okay!’
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First published in Fashion Magazine in 1969, Barbara Spencer embarked on a highly colourful career spanning three continents in which she was caught up in riots, wars, and choosing Miss World. An award-winning children’s author, Barbara is now writing fantasy/magical realism for an older audience.
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